May 1, 2020
I’ll be honest with you: My life hasn’t changed much since the pandemic forced all of us to shelter inside and physically distance from each other. There’s a mixture of humor and shame in admitting that, like someone discovering your old Limp Bizkit and Sarah McLachlan CDs from high school. To be fair, I’m not some agoraphobic misanthrope — well, not completely — it’s just that since coming back to Oklahoma, my life has taken on a certain kind of anti-social, spartan quality that has made me relatively well suited for The New Normal.
Like most folks, the threads of my twenties were interwoven with those of my friends. Sparsely attended shows at The Green Door, obscure international movies at OKCMOA, massaman and Kingfishers at Sala Thai—being in your mid-twenties in Oklahoma City the Noughties looked similar to being in your mid-twenties in Oklahoma City the Teens, only with bootcut jeans and flip phones. But I left for the East of England in September 2009, intending to work on a Master’s degree and come back home a year or so later to resume my old life, like a little kid leaping back into a game of jump rope after having a Kool-Aid break. Or in my case, a Ribena break.
I ended up living in England for nine years.
In that time, my friends in Oklahoma got married and had kids. Some clung to parts of our old life, occasionally catching mid-week shows and drinking too many lagers with their curry, but most changed with what the future brought. Initially, when I came back home for the holidays, we saw each other every day. But the interwoven fabric of our lives had started to come undone, until it was like we played out the parts in Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” and only ever talked when we ran into each other at the grocery store. More and more, we saw and talked to each other through video and text messages until that was the only way we kept in touch.
And my nine years in England? You know how it is: you meet someone. You build bookshelves and fill them until you can’t remember which book belongs to whom. After a while you realize that the future you want to build together needs a more secure center, so you start a Ph.D. And in the long days in the library, you learn a type of stillness that you didn’t have before, a kind of Zen yogic patience that lets you stack mountains of finished books and create cathedrals of words. It’s a beautiful life if you can manage it.
The aftermath of our breakup I spent walking. I walked all around Norwich, my new hometown, until I knew it as intimately as I knew Oklahoma City, from the graffiti in the Grapes Hill underpass to the grieving sunset light sifting through the bare trees along the River Yare. I walked until my boots became so sole-worn that they needed to be replaced. I somnambulantly walked for days and weeks and months, until one day I woke up to find that I’d walked all the way back to Oklahoma City.
* * *
The first two weeks of isolation, when everything was shut down and people were asked to practice social distancing, I spent watching local and national news stations, and refreshing the state’s local coronavirus website, becoming obsessed with tracking the daily data. I went through the motions of mourning and grieving for something, though I’m not quite sure what it was or if I even wanted to mourn it. Maybe it’s akin to having a distant relative pass away; you feel bad for the loss, but it doesn’t affect your day-to-day.
But life has changed.
It’s scary at first, what I imagine drowning must feel like. Your heart and mind kick and thrash, grasping for something solid that they can hold on to. And just as you’re ready to give up and let out that last molecule of air from your lungs, you find out through some evolutionary trick that you actually have gills.
That’s what these first two months of The New Normal have been like for me, thinking I had to hold on to something when I already knew how to live like this. Friendships continued through FaceTime and Marco Polo, WhatsApp and Messenger. Libraries and bookstores are closed, yeah, but there’s a stillness in my home where I patiently move a book from my To Be Read pile and build a wall of books I’ve read. When I walk in the early mornings and pass through the murals in the Plaza Walls, I see the graffitied Grape Hill underpass in Norwich, and the setting sun disappearing along the River Yare is the rising sun appearing behind the Oklahoma City skyline—pentimentos from an old life visible on this current one.
In this way, there’s some grace to things falling apart. We do what we’ve always done, take remnants from the old life, mostly good, and start to build a new center.
(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a series of pandemic diaries by Oklahoma writers. Read the rest of the series here.)