Life in the Box: Pandemic Stories

May 26, 2021

In the days following the CDC’s “declaration of mask independence” my vaccinated friends and I have been taking cautious steps back into pre-pandemic life. A shopping trip, a small group indoor gathering, a test drive for a new car… we are testing out the new protocols that demand not just a change in our physical spacing and breathing, but also an emotional shift.

We no longer have to hold our breath (and anger) when nearing a non-masker. We can smile and know people can see more than just the twinkle in our eyes. We don’t have to speak so clearly (and loudly.) We can see out of our bifocals without steam. And we can hug.

Some friends have met new people in the past year, and upon seeing them unmasked for the first time, are shocked that the person’s mouth and nose aren’t as imagined.

All this adjusting is a bit disconcerting, but manageable because it’s such a welcome relief. It’s so much better than waiting in partial shut-down for the two years that we had expected.

And, this year, the flowers are prettier, the sky is bluer, the breezes more refreshing than ever before.

So, at my first non-masked potluck last week, I said, “It’s easy to start conversations now; just ask ‘How was your pandemic?’” One friend looked at me, a bit shocked and disgruntled. Her implication was right, it’s not an easy conversation to have. It’s not like “that blizzard story,” or “that tornado that just missed us.”

It’s not a single event; it’s a maze of experiences and feelings, some of which are too personal for light socializing. I started thinking of conversant phrases that were a little more specific.

Questions could include: What did you eat… did you learn to cook… did you try anything new… how did you introduce variety in your life… did you suffer, and if so, what did you suffer from… do you know anyone that got sick… did you ever test positive, and what did you do about that… how many of your friends or family got sick… do you know anyone that died? And there’s always that homily, “What was your toilet paper situation?”

For people who worked, “Were you able to work from home, and how did that change over the year?”

For parents, “How did you manage the kids and their education?”

On the entertainment front, “How many movies did you watch? What were the best series?” I’ve actually got a few friends that have been feeding me titles this past year. I don’t watch as much as they do, so there are still some left to try.

When I look at these questions, I realize that my pandemic was uncomfortable but not tragically so. And that the people I know pretty much had enough money and food and shelter. And enough band-width and computer savvy. Most of us figured out “Zoom” and “Free Conference Call.” We are in the safe cocoon of middle class living.

That makes it a bit disconcerting when I see the statistics about unemployment and the food lines as well as the unfathomable number of deaths from Covid this past year. There’s a disconnect between my personal experiences and those of a huge number of others.

Notice the questions I didn’t suggest: When did you lose your job or get laid off? Where did you go after you lost your home? How long did you have to stand in line for the food bank? How did you get around after your car was repossessed? Have you been able to get a new job yet? Are you going to be able to start a new business after your last one went bankrupt?

It’s like I’ve lived through the Great Depression without feeling it personally. Yes, I was concerned about getting a disease that could kill me, and I took all the precautions. I was angered by my possible exposures by anti-maskers and deniers who crossed my path. At home, I was bored and sluggish from all that time away from my normal activities. But overall, I wasn’t deprived of anything important. And that’s a good thing, but it’s also confusing.


Yes, I know people who died of Covid. They were friends of friends, so not a devastating loss for me, just more of an “ain’t it awful.” I know people who worked in nursing homes and worried about the contagion.  I know people who couldn’t visit relatives in hospitals and nursing homes. I know people who got Covid bad enough to be hospitalized. I know my doctor spent much of the last year with those who had to be intubated. And I even know people who never wore a mask. Most of them did get Covid but survived. Some had it worse than others.

But on a greater scale, of the nation and world, effects of the pandemic are distant from my daily life. I never ventured into the hospitals and held the hands of the dying. I never went to the food bank to distribute groceries. I didn’t even go out to protest marches last year, something that I did the year before.

I’m aware of my cushion: my close friends, my neighbors and my family are all doing fine. We’ve all come through the year okay. And that’s a good thing.

For those who haven’t fared as well, I am glad that the nation has given them help and hope. The nation led by Democrats, by the way. This story could have had a much different ending. But it didn’t. And that’s a good thing, too.

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.


NPR Story about post-pandemic anxiety with psychologist Dana Garfin of the University of California, Irvine: “The pandemic really shattered people’s assumptions of their safety, their security, what their lives were going to be like.”

All Things Considered Q & A about post-covid anxiety and social adjustment

Photo credit: Andy Goldsworthy’s “Three Cairns” Photographed by Nancy Heather Brown at the Des Moines Art Center.


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