It was Thursday, March 12th. The last day of winter quarter at Savannah College of Art and Design. I was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep but full of adrenaline, racing to finish one last assignment and get it uploaded to an online discussion board before my eleven AM class. A stack of essays marked with my scribbled comments sat beside my backpack, waiting to be shoveled inside.
And then the email came. I saw the white notification pop up on my iPhone screen, and before I read it, I knew. The heaviness that had been hanging in the air for the last several days settled onto my shoulders like a weight.
The message was short and to the point. It said simply:
Courses at all SCAD locations to be offered online only for spring quarter. More information to follow later today.
I just sat there, staring at my phone. Even though I’d been following the news reports about the coronavirus, up until that point it had still felt like something far away. Something I wasn’t quite sure how seriously I should be taking. After all, life in Savannah hadn’t changed that much. Tourists still flocked to the bars on River Street and filled in the old town squares. Celebrations for the week-long booze fest of St. Patrick’s Day had already begun, promising more drunken mayhem the closer we moved toward the holiday. The previous night, my boyfriend and I had met his aunt and uncle for dinner at The Olde Pink House, an upscale, multi-level restaurant in an elegant southern mansion. The mood was festive. Every table was full.
I was sitting in my morning class when the next email came. All in-person classes and public events during SCAD’s spring quarter, including graduation, were going to be canceled. Academic buildings, libraries, gyms, dining facilities, and most residence halls would be closed. Campus was effectively shutting down, effective immediately.
The rest of March 12th passed in a haze. I should have been happy: it was the end of the quarter, and I had made it through. I had made it through the first, grueling, ten weeks of graduate school. Instead, confusion ruled the day. Confusion and mild hysteria. The corridors of Arnold Hall were crammed with students huddled in corners and pushed up against windows, talking on their cell phones in hushed voices. Some students were visibly upset, some were crying. All of them wondering, “What now?”
My first class let out early, so I walked to a nearby cafe, sat at the bar, and ordered two tacos for lunch. Outside, the sky was bright blue, the weather warm. It didn’t feel like a global pandemic was on the horizon. I scrolled through the news on my phone and saw that the U.S. president had issued a travel ban to and from Europe, sending airports into chaos. More travel restrictions were imminent. I texted my friend Vim, in California. I had been planning to fly to Oakland the next day to visit him and his wife Sharon for my spring break. “Everything just got crazy here,” I wrote. “I’m not sure I should travel. I’ll call you later?”
By the time I got home, canceling spring break felt like the only logical thing to do. As I watched via cable news, events in the outside world began to change, and quickly. The San Francisco Bay Area issued a shelter in place order. Los Angeles and New York closed down their bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, in Savannah, my yoga studio stayed open, and tourists continued to take advantage of the city’s open container law, ordering cocktails to go and strolling down Broughton Street with plastic cups in hand. But time pressed on. The news turned darker. And little by little, Savannah started to catch up.
First, on March 19th, the mayor issued a state of emergency, closing public beaches, fitness centers, movie theaters, and all bars that didn’t serve food. Next came the official shelter in place order on March 24th, forcing all restaurants that hadn’t already closed to switch to takeout only, and effectively shutting down all non-essential businesses. Both of those orders were well behind those of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic, but still felt progressive compared to much of the rest of the south.
It has been three weeks since I received that initial email from SCAD. My extended, largely quarantined spring break is over, and my new, virtual, spring quarter has begun. Life looks a lot different than it did three weeks ago, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. My emotions swing wildly from day to day, and from moment to moment. There are worries about my west coast family and the friends I left behind in New York. There is gratitude for my spacious condo, and relief that I’m no longer living in a cramped Manhattan apartment at a time when everyone is shuttered inside. There is the alienation of living somewhere new, far away from most of the people I love, in a part of the country where the prevailing worldview is sharply different from my own. There is the aching for home and for the familiar. There is the claustrophobia of not knowing how long this quarantine will last.
And then there is anger. So much anger that frankly, it catches me by surprise. Some of my anger has been fueled by cable news, by watching elected officials play politics when they should be helping people and saving lives. But the large volume of corona-related content swirling around the internet is what has triggered me the most. Every day, my news feed is a barrage of essays and social media posts telling me about all the things I should be grateful for, all the ways I should be using my time productively, all the “virtual” experiences I should be having. Everywhere you look, there are too many people, with too much time on their hands, trying to spin this pandemic into a positive experience. It’s exhausting. It’s irritating as hell.
That might sound extreme. Negative. Mean-spirited, even. At first, I didn’t want to admit how genuinely ticked off I was by all the people insisting I take a glass is half full approach to this quarantine. But then I realized something: the anger I’m feeling is really grief.
It’s not the kind of grief I’m used to. Not the kind I’ve experienced before. I’m lucky enough to be able to say I don’t know anyone who has died from the coronavirus (and I hope that I never do). But all of this insistence on positive thinking reminds me of the worst, most unhelpful things people said to me after my parents died. Things like “there will be a silver lining to all of this,” and “everything happens for a reason.” For the record, the next time someone tells you “everything happens for a reason,” when something really shitty happens to you, you have my permission to punch them in the face.
There is no “right” way to feel right now. It’s weird and unfamiliar and scary as hell. And the scariest thing about it is the sheer number of questions we don’t have answers to. No one knows how long we’ll have to stay at home, or how many of us will get sick, or how many businesses and individuals will be financially decimated in the process. What will life look like when all of this is finally over? We simply don’t know.
Here’s what I do know: if you’re like most people, you’re probably grieving something right now. It might be something small, like a vacation you had to cancel. It might be something larger, like the loss of your job or your income. Or, you might be one of the millions of people struggling with depression, adrift and alone in this sea of self-isolation.
Whatever it is that you’re feeling, the important thing is not to judge yourself for feeling it. Yes, you can always find someone else who is struggling more, someone who has it worse than you during this time of crisis. But playing the comparison game is not helpful. We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. We’re all grieving something. And admitting the difficulty in that doesn’t make you a bad or a selfish person. It just makes you human.
So, do the things that bring you comfort. If you want to use this time to write the next great American novel, or learn another language, or get into the best shape of your life, go right ahead. But you don’t have to. You could also call a friend. Or go for a walk. Or simply get through the day.
I’ll be right here, getting through the day alongside you.
Until next time, friends.