Gifts From Quarantine: How the Great Pause Changed Everything

Earlier this year, a virus began to sweep the globe, and the entire world pressed pause.

For me, that pause created a vacuum. The space that was normally filled with comings and goings and errands and meetings and social outings was suddenly - blessedly - empty. Which means, of course, that something had to come rushing in to fill it.

I didn't notice right away. Those first couple weeks of quarantine were so new, so novel and absurd, that I didn't have much space in my head for self-reflection. I was, like everyone else, reeling - too busy watching the news, trying to learn everything I could about viruses and exponential spread, stressing about what would happen to my business, and stocking up on canned goods. I suppose that some part of me didn't think any of this would last. It would be a couple weeks, three at the most, and life would suddenly just start up again, same as before. Business as usual.

As the days dragged by and the novelty wore off, I found myself trying to carry forth a new normal. And gradually, I became aware of a growing displeasure within me. It settled over me like a thundercloud, damp and cloying, darkening everything. And when I could no longer ignore it, I was left with no choice but to face it head-on.

To my surprise, I realized it was grief.

Not grief about what was happening in the world, though. It wasn't the anticipatory grief I'd seen referenced in the articles everyone was circulating on social media. I wasn't grieving about isolation or sickness or loss or financial instability.

I was grieving over the "normal" I was expected to return to afterward - and the realization that I didn't want it anymore.

It's a rather unsettling thing to suddenly know about yourself - that the life you've been living has actually been making you deeply, profoundly unhappy, and you hadn't even noticed because you were so busy numbing, distracting, and tuning out from it.

It was a rough few weeks after that. I tumbled headfirst down the slippery slope and into a fierce and merciless depression. I felt hopeless; so hopeless, in fact, that I was experiencing persistent suicidal ideations. I found it hard to believe I would ever feel any better. Each morning, I would open my eyes and feel profoundly disappointed that I was still alive, still expected to carry on. I don't want to do this anymore.

I talked to a few people about how I was feeling. Soulsick, I called it - sick in my very soul. I grew obsessed with moving, with selling all my possessions and living on a homestead in a verdant green countryside on the outskirts of a small European village, with a vegetable garden and chickens and laundry drying on the line. No computers, no highways, no shopping malls, no processed foods - just farmland and markets and dirt roads and wildflowers and huge, blue swaths of sky. Obviously, uprooting your entire life and moving overseas on a whim isn't something most of us can just do, and I was sane enough to realize it was highly impractical and most definitely not the quick fix to all my problems. It felt that way, though.

At the same time, a deep sense of rage and injustice burned in my solar plexus. I was angry - so angry about the way our culture defines success and the price we're all expected to pay for it. I was angry about all the chemicals in the food we buy at supermarket chain-stores - chemicals that are banned in many other parts of the world. I was angry that every time I ordered something from Amazon, I was helping the disgustingly rich get richer. I was angry at the fact that I'd spent years of my life working 80+ hours a week and still hadn't managed to get my head very far above water. I wrote this in my journal one particularly discontented afternoon:

It’s a betrayal - this notion of success that we’ve all been spoon-fed. I knew it from an academic standpoint, but I have never felt it viscerally in the way that I do now. It’s a lie - a lie designed to keep the machine running, because despite what we’ve all been led to believe, the machine needs us - not the other way around. It needs our ignorance. It needs our blindness, in order to survive. The day we all wake up, realize we’ve been played, and choose to opt out is the day the machine breaks, crumbling into nothing but a heap of obsolete scraps that we once revered as the Capitalist Dream. The system, clearly, doesn't work. Look at the wealth disparity, or how hard it is for the average American to afford something as vital as healthcare. Look at how many people struggle to make ends meet - yet we're constantly being told that we're fine, it's fine, everything's fine, and that perhaps we're just lazy and need to work harder. As though we ought to be pleased as punch to spend the majority of our waking hours working so that we can afford to be alive. As though we have no right to call our lives our own until we reach the lofty, impossible goalpost marked "success." It is the ultimate betrayal. It's gaslighting at its finest. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that I am sick. When the well is poisoned, is it any wonder that we fall ill drinking from it?

With the benefit of hindsight, I now understand that my desire to flee to that homestead in Europe wasn't really about Europe. It was about living in a way that is more aligned with my values, more in tune with the natural world, and less dependent on systems that do so much harm to so many.

I realized, with blinding clarity, that I could not continue living as I had been - not if I ever wanted to feel happy, healthy, or fulfilled. I saw things I previously hadn't wanted to see - like the fact that the amount of time I spend in front of a screen, both for work and for leisure, is a problem. Or how much time I spend thinking about all the things I plan to buy at that vague and slippery moment in time "when I have the money." Or how much energy I've invested into trying to make more money, offer more services, get more followers, do more, have more, be more - and how I've never bothered to question whether I actually need less.

It was at about this point that my hope began to return. I knew that I had to make some changes - and I also knew they wouldn't be sustainable unless I implemented them little by little, bit by bit. So I started making lists and drawings and mind maps of all the shifts I could make and how they would impact my life. And then I started actually doing the things on the list.

And I started feeling better.

I went to the nursery and spent part of my stimulus check on a ton of vegetable and herb starts and soil to plant a garden (which felt like a nice big screw-you to the capitalist machine, spending money from the government on ways to be less dependent on the system). I went through my wardrobe and purged something like 35% - 40% of my clothes, choosing to donate them instead of letting them hang in my closet and be worn maybe two or three times a year. I began researching sustainable replacements for products we use around the house. I decided I was no longer okay with generating so much waste from pads and tampons during my period each month, so I ordered a zero-waste menstrual cup instead. I started learning how to make my own household cleaners and personal hygiene products, which are better for our bodies and the environment. I learned how to make more of my own food products - bread, tortillas, sauces - so that I'd no longer have to purchase them (and the plastic packaging they often come with).

And every day, I felt a little better. Little by little, bit by bit.

The better I felt, the more excited I got about these lifestyle shifts - and the more excited I got, the more I wanted to write about them, so that I could share them and maybe help other people feel inspired to live in alignment with their values, too.

So here we are.

I am so excited for this journey forward. I also know it's not going to be sunshine and roses all of the time, and I have made a commitment to myself to share the amazing parts and the hard parts. The light and the dark. Because that's balance. It's real life.

And I want this to be as real as it gets.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​