I think I’ve forgotten how to be in the world. I am not special. I did not experience some uniquely bad pandemic experience, but I suppose the conditions are a bit unique in that I moved to a new country 6 months before it started.
I was just coming out of the complete and total numb-fog of wandering around a strange place and wondering how the fuck to buy baking powder when the pandemic began. I was just beginning to feel a little ground beneath my feet when we were all sent home to our bread making and toilet-paper hoarding, and, somehow, Tiger King.
I had no friends. I have no family here. I was living in a house in a more suburban area (read: boring to the depths of my soul). And it was cold, as usual. And my eldest child was in America.
I put on my pajamas and caved into myself.
For two years I’ve existed in this country that feels like a snow globe: Beautiful to look at, wholly removed from my reality. Something I can look at, hold in my hands, appreciate for what it is, but remains eternally closed off from me. I sure as shit can’t join it.
I hear a lot of expats and immigrants talk about this in The Netherlands. How they never feel a part of the country, whether or not they Speak Dutch, whether or not their spouse is Dutch, whether or not they have a job here.
I could speculate for 9 hours on why that may be but I don’t see the point. It is what it is. I am not alone in feeling this. But goddamn it makes it worse, I think, to have moved just before or in the middle of the pandemic. I say this not to have difficulty Olympics—I decidedly LOSE—but rather as a point of hope. As in, perhaps it will get better. Maybe I will one day walk out of my house and sit in a favorite spot that feels like mine.
And yet I wonder if we can all to some extent relate to the feeling of having been reset in an irrevocable way. Like it all blew the fuck up and you can take away the masks and social distancing and mandatory testing but you can’t bring back the way it was. Do we even want it back?
I am not one of the people who feels afraid to “return to normal” and I am definitely not a person who wants to wear an N95 for the rest of my life. No, I do not believe it is an invasion of my deep personal liberty. No, I do not want to wear them forever. Yes, I like human life better without masks, social distancing, QR codes and 750 pages of forms to travel one country to my right.
But what’s fucking with me isn’t any of that. It’s this feeling that I can’t access whatever it was I had before. Like I’ve gone so far inward at this point, pulled so deeply into a life of moving from my bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the couch to the kitchen to the bedroom just to do it all again the next day that I—like it?
Or maybe I do.
I get lonely. Really fucking lonely. And bored. I want a life and friends and places to go and favorite cafes and theater and music. I want to get excited about something. It isn’t just the depression I was fighting.
It’s some sense that I’ve lost touch entirely with the life I had built and decided was meaningful. The routines and ways of being that brought purpose to my daily life. I’ve been stripped down to me and not much else and I can’t seem to find a path back to you.
To the world. To community.
It’s a dark place in my mind sometimes. Every time I walk into the light of this world—the weird, vibrant life around me—a bit of that darkness is illuminated. I don’t feel particularly healthy. I feel contracted and suffocating.
But I don’t want to take a step out of this house either. It lost its appeal somehow.
I survived the loneliness by moving straight into the solitude. That wasn’t my idea. My best friend told me to do that. I’ve read more books than I have in years. Written more words (although not on the blog). But I’ve also played more stupid games on my phone than ever before, stared at too many walls, concentrated in ten minute intervals. Life has demanded I learn to look inward for what I need. When I do, I’m not sure I like what I find.
Are they going to tell us how to reenter? Are they going to instruct us how to get back out there the way they told us how to survive “covid brain” at home? Will there be helpful guides for what the fuck to do as we watch our kids race into the world without a thought, and we miss them a little, feel a little left behind, as the mother on the couch again. Or the office. Or some place we’ve never been at all?
They took it all away after telling us for generations what life was about, what it all meant. Those of us who survived got a glimpse of those lies, the fragility of that house of cards.
Moving from a pandemic straight into war.
What is the point, truly, of reentry. Is there even anything out there I need? Why build it all back up again?
I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say. Sometimes it’s better not to try. If anything, I’m grateful that our delusions were smashed, that maybe we see what they offered was a thin invention that offered distraction, a lot of money for billionaires, and something to do until there’s nothing to do.
Yesterday my kids and the neighborhood kids spent all afternoon preparing a funeral for a dead bird they found in the little community playground. They dug a grave and placed stones around it. Made a cross from sticks. Gathered flowers for the grave. Invited all the parents out. They sang some songs, offered eulogies, the tweens too dramatic and silly. One boy played his guitar. At the end, one of the dads said, “cake and coffee!”, which is an after-funeral Dutch tradition, I guess.
He was joking but I had just made a cake. I went inside to get it. We passed it around and ate around the grave of the buried bird. I thought about Ukraine, these children, their children, the little bird in the ground.
I’m glad it got what it deserved, a tiny world around it, caring that it died. Honoring a life we wouldn’t have noticed at all if we hadn’t stopped for a second, looked around, thought about the way it flew.
Writers & Artists:
I am leading two incredible writing retreats in July.
I realize this is a strange thing to write after the post you just read. And yet, something I know more than anything else: We keep living as long as we can, and, in the words of Toni Morrison, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.”
And of course, you don’t have to come to a writing retreat in Spain to do that. But, if you can, well.
“When Artists Get to Work” is July 3-9, 2022 and blends a traditional artist residency with the workshops and discussion of a retreat. There will be five incredible artists & writers in residence there and it’s open to writers and artists of any genre (and of course, those who do both!). It will take place in a 15th-century farmhouse in Lleida, Spain. (4 of 8 spots left)
“Craft Enables Art” is July 13-19, 2022 and is designed for writers. We’re going to a 10th-century castle in the Girona region of Spain. This is my more traditional annual retreat focusing on craft, process, and the creation of a sustainable writing practice. (4 of 12 spots left)
Tomorrow, March 15, and 10:30am PST/ 1:30pm EST, I’m holding a Zoom chat/ informational meeting about the retreats. If you’re interested in learning more, concerned about passports, travel, refunds in the case of disaster, or just what we do there all day and the vibe of these events, join us. Here’s a Facebook event link.
Or email me for Zoom info.
LorainMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 0:31
I feel your every word. We didn’t move out of the U.S. just before the pandemic, though. We moved to fucking Texas.
KatieMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 22:52
Hey Lorain-I am from Texas. I moved to Italy 10 years ago, I love it here but not a day goes by that I don’t miss my home “country”, even with all of its faults. Nothing beats the wide open spaces and the feeling of anything-is-possible-ness that Texas has. Move to the confining feels of a European country and tell me if you still feel the same way.
JoodzTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 13:01
Welcome back! I’ve missed your words so much!!!
MyraMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 1:07
Why do you always have the words I’m feeling? Sending this message to you so you feel a little less lonely. You’re a beautiful soul. I just found your book you signed for me and am reading it again. ~Put me down as a friend. ☺️
CharlotteMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 2:29
I definitely like the isolation and I am very confident that it isn’t good for me, so I signed up for a class (dance) as a light reentry into the world. Why should the kids have all the fun?
And, since it’s cumulative, I really can’t miss a week, so it drags me out of the house whether I like it or not. It’s been a good thing. Learning something new helps a lot.
Katie S.Tuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 8:18
I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed the isolation but also knows it wasn’t all that good for me. It’s that balance thing, that is so hard to get right! I resisted returning to work in person, but see now that it has been good for me in the long run. My husband took a new job just before the pandemic and is a permanent remote worker. He is beginning to struggle with this and is finding ways to meet his mental and physical health needs.
Also, I LOVE that you are taking a dance class. One of the best things I’ve ever done was take a contemporary dance class that had me rolling on the floor once a week. It was the best!
Janelle, thanks for always being able to eloquently write what my brain has been screaming at me in spurts for months. I guess no matter what our situations/pandemic experiences/etc. we all have to find a way through this transition to a new routine and way of being that feels good to us. Love to everyone who is trying!
JadeMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 2:39
Berlin instead of the Netherlands and six months after it started instead of before, but in close to every other respect, samesamesame. Thanks for saying it – I am grateful to remember I am not the only lonely one. Love to you.
AnnMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 4:41
Right there with ya’.
I don’t want to re-enter the world I had before. I usually thought of myself as an extreme extrovert, and my husband an extreme introvert. But now, after two years of extreme isolation (partly because of a grown daughter who is high risk), I think I have become an introvert. Or, not really an introvert, but I’m very happy to have internet contact. A few texts from friends is plenty to get me through my day. I have read a ton of books, my husband and I have become closer, I started painting and I am just ENJOYING this life.
I’m getting a lot of flack from people. And I don’t like to make people unhappy. But, no, I don’t want to go out for lunch. I love my friends, but they come from all different areas of my life. So I can’t see everyone in one lunch — it used to be I’d have lunch or coffee with 5 different friends in one week. Now, I don’t want to go out at all… I like to just go to the park and sit by the lake with my newly retired husband. That is all the outing I need.
I can’t decide how much effort I’m willing to put in — should I force myself to go out more? Or should I force myself to just give up friends who are getting annoyed with me? Is there some compromise?
Sigh…just sending good thoughts as we all navigate these new waters.
VonMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 7:27
I feel this. I’d just decided to jump into my new country, to somehow kickstart a love of the new place. It’s a great country on paper, the rules and ideals fit us well, the kids are doing stellar in a new language in school. But it’s not my home country. Close to my spouses, but still, feels -off-. I’d rather spend my non-desk job hours learning my in-laws language. My way to swim out into a new home is to volunteer and COVID inverted the last bits of me so that it’s hard to even write an email to a stranger, in any language. I found a great language tutor, for 1h online, a mere two times a month, and am slowly crawling back out of my shell. It took 2+ years to get here, I expect it’ll take at least that long to work out of it. I miss our families, that makes everything 100x harder.
Alissa GreeneMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 12:17
I feel a bit like when I had my daughter. You go through this enormous shift where life gets thrown upside down overnight, everything has changed, day is night and night is day and your organs have literally shifted around inside of you and what you care about has changed and every day is an exercise in scrambling to find your feet and get through and maybe if you’re lucky, figuring out who you are now in the process. And the world around you moves on as if nothing changed and they wang on about getting back to your ‘old self’ but you want to scream at them because you *know* there’s no old self anymore, because you went through the portal and it’s gone and it’s not coming back so all there is to do is try and sift through the debris and decide what you want to carry with you and what you can leave behind.
That’s how I feel now. And I’m grateful in a way, because it reminds me of what I know deep down, that ‘bouncing back’ is bullshit. We’ve had a hard pandemic (another international move, the loss of my mother-in-law to covid, a near miss for my father-in-law, morgue trucks on our street in NYC etc etc) and I feel like I’m only just getting to that rubble sifting stage. It’s ok if it takes us more than a minute to figure out who we are on the other side of this latest portal. God I think it took me five years with the kid!
AngelMonday, 14 March, 2022 at 17:32
Literally sitting here seething in the loneliness of having had a baby in 2020 and realizing that all my friends don’t care that my kid isn’t vaccinated yet. The ones with 5 year olds? Back in the world. The ones with 2 week old babies? Back in the world. I just want to hide in my cave and keep her safe until they have a vaccine for her, but at the same time I am pissed as hell that no one reaches out to me for spending time. And reaching out myself is a crap shoot of second guessing, knowing they only say yes to be nice, wondering if I’ve ever really had a friend or just a bunch of people who put up with me when I’m around.
KerryTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 6:06
Thank you so very much for ALL of your words and no answers. Definitely in the “what’s the point of it all, truly” zone with you. Just know I love reading your work, keep creating and heading toward the warmth and love.
LindseyTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 8:33
That last bit about the bird and the war and what is happening to the people in Ukraine…the way you tied this one up really got me in my feels. So much subtlety; yet so much said. You’re writing is absolutely solace.
LindseyTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 8:34
^ * Your – I blame autocorrect
PamTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 9:17
Your words perfectly described what I’ve been feeling, but haven’t been able to identify–or maybe chose not to identify. Our lives have changed, our world has changed, and whether I like it or not, I’ve changed. Now I must decide if I want to go back…
JoannaTuesday, 15 March, 2022 at 18:39
Your words resonate! I moved to Oregon in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and felt already like a turtle pulled into my shell after a year+ of Covid, and all prevaccine not seen anyone where I’m from, then moving to Oregon- which isn’t another country, except to our northern California, it kind of is.
And I know zero people up here other than the family I’ve been stuck in close proximity to for two years. I have also been pondering whether I will ever be able to return to the world, and if I even know how to try.
If I come up with any great ideas I will share. Please do the same with me if you figure anything out
Kelly PrenticeFriday, 11 November, 2022 at 16:12
Yes, me. I’m stumbling all over the place trying to find my way. I also moved just prior to the pandemic – From Pennsylvania to Hudson Valley NY. Then we moved back in 2021.
RisaTuesday, 28 March, 2023 at 22:26
This post is a year old, and yet it’s still exactly how I feel. I’ve been s best cancer survivor for 12 years, a parent for 10 years, and widowed for 8, and when I moved up to Oregon after my bestie talked my toxic ex into breaking up with me a few months into the pandemic, the movers I hired turned out to be the real-life version of Trust A Bro from Hawkeye, loading all my belongings into a truck and then trying to extort another 10K out of me that I didn’t have. They still have my stuff. (That’s…ongoing.)
So… Yea. I feel like I’ve been thrown headfirst through more portals than I care to think about, and this last one stripped me of so MUCH of myself that I haven’t the faintest idea of what to do now. Just before pandemic, I’d gotten an ADHD diagnosis, and meds, and had almost completed a coding boot camp, finally about to have a career for the first time in my life…and then I got long COVID the week of lockdown, and everything I learned fell right out of my head along with all the rest of the exciting symptoms. 17 thousand dollars of training, gone. (At least I’m alive, though… Right?)
I mean. How many times do you need to get knocked down – and this time held down, along with the rest of the freaking species – until you forget how to get back up again? What does up look like? Which direction is it?
Some days I think the only thing keeping me going is that stopping gets boring. (I say, repeatedly insisting I’m not gonna work on my fixer house anymore until I can find contractors I can trust to help me since I’m overwhelmed by how much there turned out to be wrong with the place, and then finding myself tearing up another unnecessary layer of kitchen floor, or using sticky tiles to backsplash the tea bar, or building a custom bookshelf that my elderly cat can use for stairs onto my bed.) I’m not capable of laying down to die… But I don’t seem to be capable of walking out of the house and engaging with the world anymore, either. (Is it safe yet? What does safe enough look like? Will I ever feel comfortable hugging people again? I used to live for physical touch. This is the second time touch has been turned into a thing to fear, and this time it’s not my body dictating when it’s safe, but a global virus.)
I hope that the year between this post and now has brought you a step closer. I saw your more recent posts, and how far away you went, and that you’re trying to find your way back. I did not go so far… But I don’t know if I’ve come back much, either. I hope you have come further back than I have.