Dipping the toes in: what’s your re-entry plan?

I’ll be honest, I am not ready to ditch the mask.

Mask-wearing in public has become almost ritualistic; a gesture that is performed with and among others (albeit awkardly when passing in the street). I have performed to the point of muscle memory the pattern of keys-wallet-phone-mask; repetitions of, donning the mask in the car, running an errand, then returning to the car and spritzing my hands with sanitizer. For months my spouse and I saw the same few friends, occasionally meeting up for a beer or a hamburger wherever the best patio option appeared to be. That became our practice.

Mask on. Mask off. Spritz.

Over the course of the last year researchers have learned an astonishing amount of information about this novel virus. Once it was clear that the coronavirus travels through aerosols, I found myself attempting to breathe as little as possible when people came too close or I was inside a relatively small space for more than a second. It wasn’t until I started wearing two masks to the grocery store or when going for a patio beer that I felt reasonably well protected. It almost felt like donning a sweater or jacket; just one more layer to cushion myself against the outside air.

I would also like to think that we, as a society, have learned something about ourselves, but those lessons leave a kind of rancid note on my tongue.

With the abrupt change in mask guidelines from the CDC, the layers of cotton and polymesh covering are no longer deemed necessary for my spouse and I once we’ve cleared the two week postlude from our second shot. Our faces can be naked and unashamed.

So, why do I feel so anxious? Aside from the fact that a small cloth rectangle has been so intensely politicized, shouldn’t I feel some sense of relief that scientists who have been monitoring and studying and researching the virus for the past eighteen months say, it’s okay to unmask?

But, I don’t. After fourteen months of uncertainty and restrictions, anxiety and polarizations, I am going to need to come up with a re-entry plan. In order to do so, there are a number of factors at play.

A plus-size white woman wades into the water of a river near some gently rounded river stones sticking out of the water. Her back is toward the camera. She has long brown hair and is wearing a dark blue two-piece bathing suit. Photo from bodyliberationstock.com.
[Image description: a plus-size white woman wades into the water of a river near some gently rounded river stones sticking out of the water. Her back is toward the camera. She has long brown hair and is wearing a dark blue two-piece bathing suit.]

Here are some considerations that I will continue to act on:

  1. Store clerks and grocery workers may be vaccinated, they are also still working long shifts indoors, encountering dozens and hundreds of other individuals who may or may not be vaccinated. Out of respect for them, I will likely continue to wear a mask at the store.
  2. Not everyone has received the same vaccine. I don’t know who is 74%, 86%, 92% covered. In light of this variance, I will continue to wear a mask in crowded spaces.
  3. Not everyone’s bodies respond to vaccine’s in the same way, and some bodies are simply that much more vulnerable, regardless. Out of concern for those dealing with chronic illnesses and already compromised immune systems, I will continue to wear a mask in close proximity to others.
  4. Wearing a mask, or not wearing a mask became a political statement, and I found myself reacting (strongly at times) to the underlying attitudes and positions expressed in the ways others wore or carried or ignored their mask. In public I found myself paying heightened attention to particular visual cues. Now it is time to change some of those interpretations, which won’t be easy.
  5. My own diameter of life shrank a fair bit and, like re-learning how to ride a bicycle, it will take time and experimentation with discomfort to stretch the legs back into familiar territory. To be gracious with myself, I will attempt to balance the energy required for events and outings with moments of quiet retreat.

On that last one, I very recently discovered just how different in-person gatherings feel after attending a small backyard going away event for a couple friends. It was a mixed group of people: some we had known for a long time and others we hadn’t met before. While there, things seemed relatively ‘normal’ (including the mask on/mask off routine), and we were able to see our friends one last time, which was very meaningful. Then later that night, once we got home, I wanted to crawl into a black hole and not come out for a solid 24 hours. I just wanted silence–the kind that is found in the deep recesses of a library study room. The force of that desire took me by surprise. In the past I have felt mildly energized after conversations (or perhaps it’s an adrenaline high). Not this time.

The experience of the past year, and this sudden encounter with social-emotional finitude has left me wondering about agency. As a grad student who has been ‘working from home’ for a few years now, I’ve noticed, and wrestled with, a kind of fatalist attitude around the solitude and isolation that is in part the nature of the work–particularly in the humanities where we don’t have research partners or go into a lab. It is our lot in life to be the lone genius, supposedly, letting social skills fly to the wind. (Yet, it should be noted, this is also a life that I have chosen both due to a sense of purpose behind the work and because I am supported by others.) When millions of people last spring suddenly found themselves working from home, it was strange to see what is my normal existence talked about as a novelty, ad nauseum. Other academics made similar observations as well. For those of us who have taken this pandemic seriously and been able to stay home as often as possible, transitioning (back) into what were once normal activities might need to be just that: a transition.

Here is where our agency becomes that much more important.

The role of anxiety is to show us our limits, our boundary points. We can take note of those markers while also seeing what lies just beyond. We can keep an eye out, too, for where anxiety may be cutting us off from that which is life-giving. For example, when I think about walking into a stadium that may or may not be filled to half-capacity for a baseball game, anxiety is telling me to turn and run away. If that meant missing an afternoon with friends, who I could see elsewhere, I would be willing to make that sacrifice. But when going to a game means that I get to spend some rare time with family–including my beloved octogenarian aunt who used to work as a greeter for the Mariners–then the question becomes, how do I give myself some buffers to reach beyond the anxiety? Whether it’s creating space on either side of the event, bringing my hippie homeopathic stress reliever stuff, double-masking, or all of the above, this is one area where I can step into exercising agency for the sake of connection.

The kind of self-determination I’m speaking of here has its limits. It is an agency that begins from a place of privilege, where I can choose how, when, and in what ways I engage with the world. That is an agency of the few, not of the many. The many workers and caregivers, activists and advocates who walk out the door each day do so by engaging a different set of reserves. It will behoove us, as a society, to listen and reflect on them as their stories continue to emerge.

Perhaps none of this makes sense and you are ready to fling the mask to the wind. In that case, please practice some patience with the rest of us as we slowly dip our toes back in to socializing, eating out, even traveling again. We have all been through a lot during this pandemic and–spoiler alert–it is not yet over and done with humanity. (And the fight for vaccines is only just beginning.)

For those who need reminders that we are not all heroes and bionic humans, please know that it is perfectly acceptable to find your limits and work within them as much as possible. And always, pay attention to the things that are genuinely life-giving.

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