For spring break this year, we were supposed to take a family trip to Hawaii. As the control freak in the group, trip planning is my domain, so I rolled up my sleeves, got out my highlighters, and dove into putting together a big, bold adventure that would take me, my husband, and our 10-year-old daughter from New York to Maui.
I started by educating myself on the island, then spent hours on travel sites reading reviews of hotels, restaurants, and beaches. I even went to Barnes & Noble and bought an actual book. After about two months, I’d nailed down an itinerary we were pretty psyched about.
Since it’s a long haul from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I thought it might be a good idea to break up the trip, at least on the way back. If we stopped in, say, Los Angeles for a couple of days we’d be less jetlagged when we got home and my daughter’s reentry to school would be easier. But more important, we could go to Dodgers opening day.
We are a baseball-loving family. My husband is a Mets fan; I love the Yankees. Then our daughter came along and broke the tie. (She picked the correct team.) Last year, we began traveling to out-of-town games. We started with the two oldest Major League parks in the country and saw the Yanks at Fenway and the Mets at Wrigley. Since Dodger Stadium is third on the list, and their opener fit perfectly into our travel timing, I bought three tickets. And then we were really psyched.
About a month before we were supposed to leave, we started hearing rumblings about some strange virus spreading in China. As those rumblings got louder, texts started going around among me and my friends, who also had family trips planned for spring break. “Are you guys still going?” I kept asking. The unanimous answer was yes. But I had a bad feeling.
After much debate and hand-wringing, my husband and I finally made the call: the trip was off. At that point, we were outliers. The raging inferno of cancellations that would soon engulf the entire global travel industry was still just an ember at that point. With each reservation agent I spoke to, I became more sheepish. I could almost feel the eyerolls through the phone directed at me — the neurotic, overanxious New Yorker who’d let fear get the best of her.
What I feared more than anything was two straight weeks at home with nothing to do. My family doesn’t do well with wide-open stretches of time. We need a plan. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Just a trip to the bowling alley or the batting cage, a museum or a park. But as a dress needs a mannequin to give it form, we need something to hang the day on. Without structure, bad things happen. I get irritated. They start playing Nintendo. Bickering becomes yelling which becomes finger-pointing, and what should be quality time together devolves into an endless blame-a-thon that makes everyone miserable.
If the prospect of a wide-open spring break induced mild dread, the prospect of a pandemic confining us to our two-bedroom apartment for the foreseeable future should have sent me into a paralyzing panic. But, for the most part, I’ve been fine. Of course, I have gloomy moments, but my worst fears have not come true.
I’ve been thinking about why that is — and what comes to mind is running.
When I ran my first New York City Marathon more than two decades ago, I found the preparation was mostly mental. I had to train my body, but more than that I had to train my mind. I had to find a way to shift the idea of running 26.2 miles from the category of ludicrous to likely. It didn’t happen fast, but it did happen. With each mile I put in, my belief in what was possible expanded.
The key was not getting ahead of myself. If I was in week two of my training plan, I couldn’t think about how I’d ever get to week eight. In order to stave off doubt and defeat, everything had to be incremental. A slow, gradual progression. No peeking at the last page. If I did that, focused on the future and the enormity of what I was taking on, I’d quit — because running 26.2 miles is an absurd thing to do. It’s as absurd as staying in your house for weeks on end because there’s a deadly virus outside your door. So, the same principle applies: if I put all my mental energy into wondering how much longer this nightmare will last or pondering all the ways life will be different when it’s over, I’ll end up in a ball on the floor. I have to frame it differently. I can’t look down the line. I need to be exactly where I am.
I know, I know, if one more person tells you to live in the moment and just be happy you can still get an internet connection and fresh produce, you’re going to scream — but in this case it’s true. Projecting into the future may yield a temporary sense of control, but it’s not real. People can say whatever they want about opening dates and antibody tests and whether we’ll be able to go the beach this summer, but the truth is no one knows.
In addition to the progressive nature of marathon training, there is another concept that helps me avoid looking too far ahead. It’s a central tenet of Buddhism: the idea of impermanence. Everything changes. And it’s not the change that’s painful, it’s the resistance to it. The more we try to wrestle uncertainty into submission, the more miserable we become. The idea in a time like this is to stop seeking answers, and instead find a way to live with the fact that we don’t have any, at least not yet.
Well, how in the hell do you that? Of course, if you’re seriously depressed and unable to pull yourself out of it, you should seek professional help. But for those struggling with a more common ennui, shaking it off is a practice, like any other. When it comes on — the sadness and fear, the sense that you’re in a terrible dream state or a cruel alternate universe or a “Twilight Zone” episode that just won’t end — you catch yourself and make a conscious decision to stop, to not go any further down that road, and breathe. That’s right. Put down the disinfecting wipes and breathe.
It’s not rocket science and it doesn’t make you weird. You just inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth three times. And no wimpy little sniffs. Long, deep, mindful (yeah, I said it) breaths. You may have to do it once a day or a hundred. But if you commit, like a marathoner to her training plan, over time you will improve. Remember, though, the goal isn’t to make the emotions or the questions disappear. It’s to learn to peacefully coexist with them.
All of this a major challenge for me. I don’t want to breathe. I just want to know when I can see my mom again. When I can put a road trip or a ballgame on the calendar. But there are no calendars now. No months or weeks or weekends. We’re living one continuous day into night into day again. It’s not normal or natural or comfortable or easy. It’s really hard. But maybe it will be a little a less hard if we can think about it like we’re all training for a collective marathon and take it one step at time as we move together toward the finish line.