Some Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts

The Covid-19 news of the past few weeks is having an effect on all of us. The sun may be shining, the daffodils may be blooming (or not, yet, depending on where you live), and you may be going about your business pretty much as usual. But things are changing–or rather, this thing, this virus, is changing the way we think about our lives. Changing our lives may be required of us, of course, in big ways and small. And if we’re going to do that, changing the way we think is the place to begin.

Over the decades of a longish life, I’ve made a gazillion important decisions. But the most important might have been when I came home to work. That happened about thirty-five years ago, when I was in my mid-forties. By that time, I had been working out there in the wide world for twenty years, raising kids and studying and teaching and writing and traveling–doing all the career-building things a woman has to do if she’s going to survive and thrive in the career culture. I was a university professor and administrator, and it wasn’t unusual for me to invest 14 and 16 hours a day in my work, most of that time away from home. I wasn’t alone in this: many of us regarded the clock not as a taskmaster but as a badge of honor. Putting long hours into the job was an investment, a demonstration of commitment, especially if you were a woman. In a highly competitive culture, it was how you got ahead.

I won’t go into detail here (there’s more in Together, Alone, a memoir I wrote in 2007). I’ll just say that I reached a point in my mid-forties when I was forced to realize that the life I had created was unsustainable in the long haul, and that I had to reexamine the choices I had made and make decisions I never dreamed I would make.

This was apocalyptic, but not sudden. It took time–several years, in fact. When I emerged on the other side, I had made some life-changing choices. Perhaps the most important post-apocalyptic decision was that whatever kind of worklife I made for myself, it was going to be based at home. Since writing was what I knew, I would start with that. I would try to make writing my work.

It wasn’t easy. This was in the days before “working remotely” had become a thing, and there was no internet, no email, no networking. I didn’t know any women who had done this, so it was pretty much free-style. But I got lucky. I possessed enough skill and market-savvy to get started and enough determination to stay with it long enough to hone my startup skills. I was partnered with someone who had the same goals and was willing to give up the costly trappings of career-culture “success.” Working from home–home/work–became my new normal, and its freedoms empowered me to play with other creative parts of my life. Fact one, bottom line: Deciding to work from home was the best thing I did for myself, ever.

I think about this often now that Covid-19 has invaded our lives. Events we looked forward to are being canceled, some with tsunami-like economic implications. Employers are telling us to stay home–or we think that they might. Schools and nursing homes are closing–or we fear that they will, and we will have to make other arrangements for children and elderly parents. Must-have items on our stock-up lists are . . . well, they’re out of stock, and we’ll be out of toilet paper tomorrow. It’s hard to see, from where we’re standing now, that the outcomes of this thing can be anything but apocalyptic. And perhaps they will.

But maybe that’s what it takes for us to think seriously about the way we work and live, the way we spend our time and our money and our days and our nights. If this is an apocalypse, what will “normal” look like on the other side? What will we have learned–that is, beyond tunes we’re supposed to sing while we wash our hands for twenty seconds. We may be glad to have all that ramen and canned tomato juice on our shelves, but what else will we have? What won’t we have, when this is over? How is it possible to use this time to reconsider something very basic–the way we think about our lives?

We don’t know what the coming week will bring. But I hope you’ll have time for a little post-apocalyptic thought.

Reading note. When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.― Thomas Merton

24 comments on “Some Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts

  1. I’ve decided to reread The Darling Dahlia series. It’s perfect for this period in our lives! I’ll be comforted and distracted. I wonder what I will learn this time around? Thanks Susan!

    • Susan, that book is on hold. I got so interested in the historical backstory (about the Blackwell herbal) that I was letting it run away with the novel. I turned to a couple of more manageable projects. By the time I get back to it (September/October) I’ll be able to see what China and I need to be doing with it. The book still wears the “Hemlock” title. Thanks for asking!

  2. Thank you so much for your descriptions of nature, and your insights. I’m in the process of making these life changes, similar to what you describe. I retired from being a journalist some 20+ years ago, but continued with my volunteer work … in fact, to an even greater extent! So, for me this is an opportunity to NOT have to solve group-dynamic problems, NOT have to go to meetings, NOT have to plan meeting agendas, NOT have to go to conferences, and so many other “NOTS!” I don’t wish harm to anyone (financially or physically), but to me this virus pandemic is like a gift that I was not expecting, but that I’m SO happy to receive (especially since I’m still well, at this moment). Because I’m 76, and have underlying health issues, I don’t have to explain to anyone why I’m now in self-quarantine. Oh the luxury of letting go of reasons and excuses for why I don’t want to be a leader, anymore (after 30+ years of leadership positions). Now I can concentrate on my doing my family’s genealogy research, writing my family history, doing scrapbooking, painting, and gardening. I was raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression, so I know our country can suvive, and I enjoy being self-sufficient: canning, baking, sewing, crafting, READING, etc. (and other activities, as others of you have mentioned). I may even get some housecleaning and closet-weeding worked into the mix, too! Isn’t this a beautiful spring?!

  3. Wonderful insights, Susan! Some of us had parents who came through the Great Depression and wondered why in the world are we still canning fruits and vegetables and putting them in the cellar? Why do we have a gazillion jello boxes in the pantry and so much frozen rhubarb and venison? Now we know. That kind of preparation could come in very handy. My savings are going to hell in a hand basket at a time when I was about to celebrate a major financial benchmark, but I’m determined to live long enough to wait for it to come back up! Thank you for keeping us grounded!

    • My husband thinks it’s crazy to have two cans of cream of mushroom soup or an extra can of green beans in the cabinet. I used to can and freeze everything I grew, just like you, Shawn, and I’m seriously thinking about returning to that way of doing things. It’s the way I grew up, the way my entire family did things over many years, and it’s in my blood. My hubs won’t know what hit him come September when the cabinets are overflowing and I’m thinking where can I put another freezer! Glad to know there are still folks out there like me!

  4. My Dad told me how to survive such an event. He was safe in the trenches in France when the Spanish Flu hit his hometown – Vancouver BC, Canada. He lost his parents and two sisters. Shit happens. Do your best. Protect yourself and keep moving on.

  5. Realizing that your work life pattern was unsustainable, and choosing the one you wanted–Wow! Would that we all could realize that early enough to matter. Really, a good thing to realize any time.

  6. The only thing I’m stocking up on is toilet paper, and it’s not because of the virus. I drink a lot of water and have a medical condition that makes me use the bathroom a lot. Running out of toilet paper isn’t an option ROFLMBO. Other than that, I’m using common sense, eating from the well stocked pantry/freezer/fridge, have 1/2 a cord of wood for the woodstove

  7. Have been seeing my youngest grandson more often slightly because he was sick and wanted company. Never say no to putting them first without babysitting anymore after 17 years of with all three up to junior high.

  8. Your wisdom is always welcome, Susan. It shines through in all of your books! I’m hoping that we use this as a time to care for one another and to improve our every day habits. I took hand sanitizer to a blind friend yesterday, my husband commented that he’s using hand wipes in the stores and my students are learning real hygiene. Life does seem to be full of constant change. May we learn as we go and may we be kind as we do so.

  9. Drat! And we demolished the outhouse last year–but I still have a wood-burning stove, & it’s time to sweep the basement floor before the annual spring flood.Thank you for helping clarify the thoughts “squirreling” around in my head. (Hmm–only 1 “l” in “Squirreling”?

  10. Susan, your words bring us to a point in this current worldwide crisis where we remember we can stop and make choices about how we care for ourselves and our families. No need to allow panic and stockpiling assume the role of leading our lives. Thanks for the reminder from Thomas Merton as well. He’s a favorite of mine!

  11. Right now the facts about the virus change every day but the one thing that remains true is we must all take care to see that we are doing what we can to stay safe. Buying some extra toilet paper, canned food, bleach, etc is something we can each do….just enough for our families but not hoarding because it is important that everyone can get supplies and when people hoard it means others will not be able to get some basic supplies. If we end up spending more time at home I am sure we all have many things we can work on to stay busy and not just sit and worry. Only time will tell how this will play out but being safe is what we can all strive for.

  12. I’m refusing to let this whole business define me. I won’t be panicking and stocking up on stuff. I’m not wearing a mask. I AM staying out of crowds and continuing to eat healthy and stay as clean as possible. There are so many things in life to be afraid of if you let yourself.
    Like you I realized I was spending way too much time away from my life and how I wanted to live it. I was in radio and had very little time away from it. I decided to do a Monday thru Friday 8-5 job and it was a good decision. Then I retired at 62 and only work part time now. What I gave up financially I gained personally.

  13. Wonderful. As always with your writings there is something that speaks to each of us in a personal, intelligent manner that just makes one think she is unbelievable. Thank you for sharing your genius. God Bless You.

  14. You are Spot on…it’s a wakeup call for us all but then we’ve had times of this before in our country. Remember the Victory Gardens of WWII for example as well as Nixon administration. Shortages.

  15. This reflection is very welcome. We’ve been so preoccupied with hand sanitizer availability and hand washing techniques and statistics. Taking time to think about what this means has been pretty much ignored. It occurred to me that a re-reading of Camus’ The Plague might be useful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the reminder that events like this reveal who we are as individuals and a nation, and that’s worth thinking about.

  16. So very thoughtful, as usual, Susan. None of us have lived through a pandemic in our lifetime. Now we very well may experience this event – with great loss on the other side. We are a nation of excess, and we get upset if there is no wifi at the local gas station. Living more simply may be a result of this outbreak. I have to believe it can ground us in new ways. We will likely find joy and pleasure in the quiet and solitude, reconnecting with families and nature. I hope it, personally, fills us with gratitude for all that God has given us here on this earth. We do take so much for granted. Thanks for opening a conversation, Susan.

  17. Thank you, Ms. Albert, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. We all need to think about what we want and need from our lives.

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