by Sonya Chung
Our social worlds have contracted—my inner pod is down to five. We “check in.” We trade links and photos by text. We don’t beat around the bush, we say what we’re feeling & thinking, what’s happening in today’s hanging-in-there news—textable snippets, emojis emojis emojis (and typos, my god, what is happening to me?). We make phone dates (Zoom & Facetime feel too much like “work” now). Some of us are single, some hunkering down with partners/families. Those of us who live alone feel acutely but do not readily verbalize the painful fact of long stretches without physical touch. Thank goodness for the dog, who is honorary number six.
In the beginning, I moved in with my sister. We cooked creative meals together to stay sane, to feel warm and nourished and connected. We ate well. In the evenings we watched Kim’s Convenience with my nephews and ate large portions of sweets or bowls-full of crunchy salty things. We ate badly. hen my nephews went to sleep, and out came the wine and whiskey. We drank too much.
We talked late into the night about how grateful we were, how anxious we were, how hard life was even before the pandemic (dredging up our childhood as the wine flowed), how a totally different kind of weirdness and uncertainty had replaced the former difficulty, and how life was always stressful and frightening, pandemic or no pandemic… so let’s drink some more. We gained weight.
In the middle, I moved back to my own apartment. Subscribed to a vegetable delivery service and cooked a lot and did yoga and turned over a healthier leaf. Summer came, and the endless heat wave sucked away my appetite. I went back to work. I rode my bike from uptown to downtown. Outdoor activity made everything seem just a little normal, intermittently pleasurable. Most of the weight came off.
In part 2 of the middle, election season took over, and everything went to shit again. Night-snacking, drinking, over-eating hangover in the morning, more anxiety-snacking, more drinking; rinse and repeat. The stakes were enormous, the possibility of compounded disaster utterly real. Once again, weight was gained.
In part 3 of the middle, the election came and went, and I began to sleep better. That particular anxiety—considering seriously leaving the country, starting a new life as far from the daily tyranny of the idiot monster as I could get—quieted. But with the change of seasons and raging infections, venturing outside and the simplest tasks became again nerve-wracking. Keep your distance; move briskly; avert your face; wash wash wash your hands. No pounds lost or gained.
In the end, now, part 1 of the end, it’s those five pounds. I feel them all the time, weighing me down physically and mentally. They are the pounds that keep you from feeling ready and energized when you wake, in-the-zone while you work, relaxed in your clothes and in your soul. You know what I mean; I’m pretty sure you do. We won’t be feeling fully energized or relaxed again for some time.
For most of us, life has slowed down. No more rush-hour commuting, running from work to gym to kids’ soccer practice to the nursing home to a meal with friends. We’re doing less, because less is do-able. Our stresses are more about isolation, destabilization, reorientation; less about time…
… if we lean into it, that is. We could, certainly, fill up that time with other multi-tasking, time-crunching activities. I’ve found myself opting for “five more minutes.” Slow it down, take your time. Not by much, but you begin to see—the meaningfulness of small increments.
Five minutes earlier means sitting with a cup of coffee, savoring it, and thinking of nothing at all before starting on a day of brain-squeezing work. Five more minutes allows for a slow stroll to and from the subway, on which non-mission-critical thoughts can occur (I miss her, I wonder how she’s doing; tonight I will research acupuncture); neighborhood storefronts, new and old, get noticed (order takeout this weekend, they look like they need business); and notes for an essay or story can be written in a notebook (Five Minutes; The Golden Five?). Five more minutes means biking up the hill, working up a good sweat and burn, then cruising down the other side with the wind in your face, instead of avoiding the hill altogether; or it means not running that red light, not nearly slamming into a pedestrian or, worse, a car. Five more minutes gives the dog five more minutes of gleeful sniffing and one or two more doggie encounters—the value of which could be, who knows, infinitely greater than what five minutes of comparable pleasure means to us.
Sometimes it’s not about what you do or don’t do in those five minutes; it’s about gentle transitions from one thing to the next. If you do yoga, you’ve heard this, about the signals you send to your own body and soul when you jerk yourself around, from standing to sitting, from sitting to kneeling, from left to right. Finish doing X; take a breath; move calmly, maybe even gracefully, into Y. It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.
Many of us have less work, and less money. We are also spending less and/or differently. In NYC, the loss of bar & restaurant life is (I know, cry me a river, in the grand scheme of things it probably sounds melodramatic) tragic. Certainly it’s tragic for restaurant owners and workers, for the city’s economy. For consumers, refraining from gathering in bars & restaurants in NYC is like… living on the coast and having no access to the water.
Structure helps me cope. A plan. The eating-out budget is diminished, but I want these restaurants to make it, I want my spirit to make it, and I want to enjoy my city’s amazing food. So it’s all about five-dollar takeout lunches, a couple times a week. Mamoun’s falafel. Bahn-mi from Saigon Shack. Tofu shrimp in garlic sauce (the half portion) from my local Chinese takeout. Lebanese Za’atar. Curry beef or roast pork pastry from Fay Da Chinese bakery. Two cheese slices with can of soda from pretty much any pizza joint down the block. A whole wheat everything bagel with a shmear of lox cream cheese from Bo’s. For a healthy option, a green protein smoothie from the smoothie place run by Big Russ’s barber shop. And yes, even occasionally steam table oxtails and collard greens from Jacob’s Soul Food (well-managed, sanitized, socially distanced setup).
5 more months
Who’s to say, though the real-science people have been basically right all along. Five more months seems likely. Buckle in. Mask up. Take a breath, or two, or five. Check in with your single friends. Check in with your partnered friends. Spend a little money if you can. Don’t give away or let out your clothes yet: we’ll all find our better selves and our energy again on the other side. .
Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones and Long for This World. She is a staff writer for The Millions and founding editor of Bloom.
Photos of Ruth Greenstein and Jonathan Rabinowitz by Beowulf Sheehan.