To say this is an odd time is an understatement. Better adjectives might be strange, bizarre, or surreal.
Exhibit A: Olivia is sitting on my desk. The last time she sat here voluntarily was at least a decade ago. Granted, I lifted her up since she can no longer make the leap, but she’s stayed.
Olivia, age 6 months
At least as curious is the fact that she voluntarily came into the office in the first place. I suppose this could be due to my having vacuumed yesterday so that it’s more to her liking, but that wasn’t the first time I ever vacuumed (seriously, it wasn’t). She usually spends her days sleeping on my bed. Being awake, alert, and in my office is highly unusual.
She’s sniffing all around my desk, rubbing her face on the pens and knocking papers aside. And now she has chosen to lie down (although this event lasted barely as long as it took me to write those few words).
Maybe it’s her response to my stress, or maybe it’s something of her own. She’s lost a bit of weight lately. The vet said just to keep an eye on her, but my constant what-crisis-is-next mentality remembers that one of my cats, Bobbi, never showed any interest in being with me until the day she was diagnosed with cancer; after we got home from the vet, she came into the office and crawled up in my lap.
Or maybe it’s just that this morning, Liv found the silver elastic that had been around a box of candy. These elastics have always been favored cat toys for snap-and-chase. We haven’t had one in so long that I’d forgotten the game until Olivia knocked the elastic to the rug and started playing with it on her own (a definite no-no, as such toys are prone to being chewed and swallowed). So I snapped it for her and she chased it with kittenish glee for several minutes until the others began to edge in. The silver elastic is now on my desk, a fact she knows since she batted it a bit while she was up here, so maybe that’s what’s pulling her back in.
At least I know she’s not responding to a change in schedule. For her entire life, and long before, I’ve spent my days at this desk in this office. While I imagine many pets are adjusting to having their owners at home in this strange time, for mine it’s business as usual.
It could be as simple as Livy sensing my discomfort in this time of strangeness. No matter that my own life proceeds largely unchanged apart from the minor inconvenience of a few empty supermarket shelves. I feel as if I’m living in suspension, waiting for something huge to crash down and splinter everything.
Every day brings more cancellations, more postponements, more evidence that we can’t order our days, not really. From concerts to sports, bat mitzvahs to weddings, graduations, book tours, non-emergency medical and dental appointments, meetings and deadlines—we fill our calendars and to-do lists, thinking we know what today and tomorrow will bring, as if our plans constitute decrees. Then, in what seems like an instant, everything changes. We’re frozen, and yet we’re not. We stand still and wait for the other shoe to drop even as we pray fervently that it doesn’t.
This isn’t a new thing. In the New Testament, James reminded his readers of the folly of relying on their own plans: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
The closest thing I remember is the time immediately after 9/11. Those of us with non-essential jobs didn’t work, at least for the first day or two. We watched TV and consumed news reports until we reached our limits. We checked in with each other. We were gentler, more patient. We understood in a new and frightening way how breathtakingly fragile life is.
I was in court on September 10. My opposing counsel announced his intention to file a motion to dismiss the action we’d brought. On that typical day, right before the world changed forever, the judge told him to have it in by the end of the week.
The 10th was a Monday. On Thursday, the attorney called to ask if I’d agree to an extension of his filing deadline. Of course, I said. I didn’t ask why; I didn’t need to. He explained anyway, maybe because he needed to say it aloud: most of his family was in Brooklyn, and he’d spent the past two days making sure they were all accounted for and safe, and they were. He asked about my family, and I assured him they were also safe. He asked how long an extension I would agree to. I told him to file his motion whenever he wanted. He understood.
This is a time of adjustment, make no mistake. Life has changed. For some of us, the changes are minor and temporary; for others, they’re major and long-lasting, if not permanent. Olivia’s behavior reminds me that we will all adjust to the weirdness differently. It’s a good time to practice making allowances for each other (a sentence I hesitate to write since putting such an idea out there is tantamount to inviting lots and lots of opportunities to practice this lofty aim).
Anne Lamott often quotes Ram Dass’s line that ultimately we’re all just walking each other home. Maybe we can try to do that. If nothing else, it’s a place to begin.