Our Stories: A new normal

Contributed Community

By Beth Pridgen

Has the novel COVID-19 virus and the ongoing pandemic forced us into a new normal? It would seem to be the case. It started small in a distant place but has picked up speed like a freight train and is now barreling seemingly out of control. It is here, and we are learning to live differently because of it.

The first week of March, everything was fairly normal. We were working, eating out, hosting dinners, and preparing for Lent with the culminating celebration of Easter. We had quiet conversations at church services and other gatherings about the virus and suggestions that instead of handshakes or hugs, we should exchange elbow taps or air hugs and kisses. By the third week of March, life changed dramatically. Schools closed, and “social distancing” was added to our repertoire of new phrases. Social gatherings were highly discouraged, meetings, church activities and other events were cancelled. Much anticipated trips to other states or countries were put on hold indefinitely. COVID-19 invaded our world and altered what we knew as normal.  

The closing of schools was especially difficult for so many, including our family. I couldn’t serve my assigned schools in Gwinnett County. Teachers and students here in Morgan County parted on March 13, thinking they would see each other again before school year end. That was not to be. Teachers scrambled to provide student work and lessons and sought ways to connect with students in an online format. Those who did not have internet were provided paper copies of work to be completed. This was new territory and a monumental task. Working parents were forced to hurriedly find childcare and were now feeling the pressure of trying to homeschool their children, too. As an educator, I knew the struggle.

On the evening of March 17, my middle school granddaughter messaged me saying, “Grand Ma, I need help!” How could I resist that plea? I agreed to work with my granddaughter three days a week. Despite being out of the classroom almost 12 years, I was about to become a middle school teacher again. It was a scary thought, and I had a right to be scared. Have you seen the way they teach math these days? Now, what exactly is a reflexive pronoun? How many AU’s is Venus from the sun? I almost developed whiplash from the learning curve I was experiencing. I’m not sure which one of us is learning more. At any rate, we continue to persevere. We both get frustrated at times, but I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything. At the end of a day, she says “Thank you,” and we exchange XXOO with our fingers as her mom drives her home. (It was decided yesterday, for safety reasons, that my granddaughter and I would have to work together from our separate houses. We were both sad, but we’re going to make a plan and make it work.)

Our family sends a big “thank you” to the teachers who continue to provide students with learning experiences that address not only the academic, but also the social, emotional and physical needs of students. Our oldest granddaughter, who is a senior this year, has the academic in hand but has seriously missed the social and emotional aspects of her much-anticipated graduation with all the pomp and circumstance. There will be no prom, no hanging out with friends before they part in the fall, no closure to a life’s milestone. She gets it though, and I think her attitude is amazingly mature. She is resigned to sheltering in place and social distancing although it was very difficult at first. The yard signs definitely provided a boost to morale. Her younger sister, however, thinks her older sibling is suffering terrible emotional damage. When I asked why, the response was, “She actually wants to hang out with me now.”  

Shopping at Ingles and Walmart was certainly an unusual experience. I don’t know about you, but I was caught off guard by the empty meat cases and paper goods aisle. There were stacks of water bottles but not one roll of toilet paper to be had. It was shocking and caused a pang of sadness. The reality of the situation slapped me in the face. People are scared and reacting in irrational ways. My daughter-in-law and I discussed the phenomena. We agreed that we might be eating artichoke hearts and baked beans, but that toilet paper was a necessity. We would look out for each other. Additionally, the situation did provide a teachable moment in economics about supply and demand. The vocabulary word “scarcity” was used in the sentence, “There is a scarcity of toilet paper in the grocery store.” I still don’t get why.  

On my most recent venture to Ingles, I donned mask and gloves and pulled my paper list from my purse as I entered the store. I hadn’t bothered with makeup since most of my face was covered which was a plus, but if I breathed too deeply, I fogged my glasses and couldn’t see. I felt like I resembled a desperado from a spaghetti western. I was in good company, however. It was surreal.  Almost everyone in the store wore a mask and gloves, and people were intentionally distancing themselves. One employee, who was stocking the meat case, remarked to another and said the store looked like a scene from “General Hospital.”  

When sheltering in place was first recommended, it was raining here what seemed like every other day. Being stuck indoors, I industriously began to clean out closets and drawers. Next, I started cleaning, and I mean deep cleaning. It felt good to have a clean house even if there was no one around to appreciate it. Now that the house was clean, I turned my energy to re-organizing. Closets and cabinets were purged and made orderly, but I may have gone a bit too far with the food pantry. My husband laughed (thankfully) and said that I was becoming like the grocery stores; moving items around regularly so that he had to “shop all the aisles” to find anything. 

With sunshine and drier days, my attention turned outdoors. Pulling weeds, creating a new flower garden, re-setting brick pavers, and trimming shrubs became opportunities for a productive outlet. There is something very satisfying about completing an outdoor project and seeing the fruits of your labor. 

Being outdoors also provides innumerable glimpses into the wonder and beauty of our world. Outdoors is where I meet God most often. As I walk, I talk to God about anything and everything. I notice the white dogwood blossoms against a Carolina blue sky and the lavender wisteria vines and marvel at the beauty of creation. I feel the cool wind on my face and the warm sunshine on my back. I whisper a thank you. A motivated and trusting little wren recently made a nest in a geranium right next to the back door of our farmhouse. Again, I marvel at the instinct and engineering skill of this creature. I sense a connection to creation and to our earth.  

Connection is a prevalent need for me and others during this pandemic. People are reaching out to each other in creative, uplifting, and supportive ways. How many inspirational videos and messages shared by others have you seen or actually witnessed during this unprecedented time? How many funny animal and people pictures and videos have you seen? How many churches are finding ways to stream services and to connect to worshippers? There is a realization that we are all part of the same situation and in this together. People who are strangers are speaking to each other in passing as they walk. You can see the connection being made in their eyes. Families are staying in close touch (figuratively). I have particularly appreciated the inspirational and motivating articles and what I call the “funnies.” For instance one friend texted and said, “In case you are wondering, today is March 97th.” My devout sister-in-law in Texas sent a text saying, “This is obviously getting to me! I was following the Holy Thursday Mass on the computer. The Gospel reading was that Jesus washed the apostles’ feet, put his garments back on, and reclined again at the table. I immediately thought, ‘Did He wash His hands?’ Sigh!”

No, this is not a funny situation at all, but levity is a way of helping ease the stress and anxiety and true hardships many are suffering. The economic situation is definitely a huge concern, along with the impact this event will have on future generations. The fact that so many have died or are sick is difficult to absorb. The fear of a future unknown is acutely present. The challenges of the mentally ill and homeless seem monumental. The strain of quarantine is manifesting itself in less than desirable ways for many. All these things are present and deserve our attention, but good things are happening, too.

Are we looking at a new normal? In some ways, I hope so. I hope we can walk away from COVID-19 and cease thinking about it continually, but I also hope we never forget some things. I hope we never forget the grief of lost lives, or the fear and struggles of those who have no money, food or shelter and few resources. I hope we don’t lose a global perspective and the realization that we are all connected. I hope we remember empathy and compassion and that we remember to slow down enough to live lives of gratitude. I hope we realize the impact we humans have on polluting our planet. I hope we remember the dedication and courage of medical personnel and others. At this time, gift of life has never seemed more fragile and precious. I hope we can remember, “It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about all of us and how we learn from this experience and take forward the lessons we are being taught. Maybe we will be better people because of the struggle.

Beth Pridgen is a retired teacher and principal, lives in Madison, and currently works part time for UGA as an instructional coach.

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