I admit I felt a quiet thrill a few months ago as, one canceled appointment after another, the pandemic cleared my schedule. Permission to skip a dental cleaning? I'd gladly take it.
As spring wore on, however, I began to worry. Routine health care can wait awhile, but not forever, and there are some procedures that simply don't lend themselves to a telehealth visit. You cannot, for example, give yourself an at-home mammogram with two skillets and a Polaroid, even though that would approximate the sensation of the real thing. Likewise, car tuneups can be put off only so long before driving becomes dangerous. And in a few weeks, the grace period for dealing with taxes runs out. July is the new April, for accountants anyway. As the country reopens in different phases from state to state, I feel relieved to be able to tiptoe out of isolation and put at least a little of life's regular maintenance back on the calendar.
But reopening doesn't feel entirely like relief. The coronavirus has derailed dreams — weddings, travel and semesters abroad — as well as more mundane plans, such as home repairs, work deadlines and professional conferences. Getting back on track in fits and starts and, eventually, a crush of makeup dates comes with its own disorienting kind of stress. We have entered the rescheduling phase of the pandemic: Nothing is happening when it's supposed to, but it all has to happen sometime.
Take the messier aspects of life, for example, the matters in which people need legal intervention. When courtrooms shut down across the country this spring, countless people were left waiting to settle disputes, finalize divorces and hold hearings on issues from custody to child support. In North Carolina, for example, all jury trials are still on hold until at least Aug. 1. I asked J.D. DuPuy, a partner at a firm in Charlotte, what summer and fall will look like for lawyers and their clients as the courts reopen. "It may," he offered, "be a bit of a nightmare."
Speaking of nightmares: You should (not) see my hair, which last benefited from a professional cut and what I like to believe are subtle highlights in February. Although grooming may not be a life-or-death situation, many of us are unequipped to perform the procedures vital to our vanity, which makes the reopening of salons feel like a step toward normalcy. But for the salons, rebooking a backlog of missed appointments can come with an onslaught of pressure from clients angling to get in first. Nashville's Parlour & Juke issued a public statement explaining its rescheduling rules after staff told owner Cali DeVaney Wilkins that clients were hounding them on social media. "I had a stylist call me in tears one night," Wilkins said, "because so many people were messaging her on Instagram for appointments."
My husband and I carefully plan our work travel around each other to make sure a parent is always home, but whoops, my spring speaking gigs got moved to the fall and may soon get moved to next spring — I'm not sure. Our son, a high school senior, is applying to colleges in a few months, although we don't know yet when or even if he can visit the remaining campuses on his list. With schools across the country building new academic calendars from scratch, do the terms "fall break" and "spring break" even mean anything anymore? (If you were hoping to reschedule your family's canceled spring or summer travel, good luck figuring out when to go.) Because there's no predicting exactly how things will look virus-wise in a few months, so much tentative rescheduling may end up being re-rescheduled.
In the most wishful part of my imagination, I picture America's reopening as the triumphant final scene in an asteroid movie, when citizens stream out of their homes and into the streets and fields, clapping and embracing, faces turned toward the sky, now clear of the deadly shadow. In reality, trying to restart the parts of life that have been on hold because of the pandemic feels more like doing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle while the picture on the box keeps changing.
Maybe, though, it's helpful to ask: Has there ever been a point when you could catch up on everything because the chaos of the world finally stood still to accommodate your to-do list? I don't know anyone who has lived exactly the life they once planned, right down to each perfectly timed event. Most of us have had our timetables scrambled before. We've adjusted our path forward as necessary, and we can do it again. We'll just need to swap pen for pencil as we make plans.
I've been thinking lately about the birth of my daughter 14 years ago. Due at the end of January, she arrived instead a month early, in December. At first, when my husband and I realized that the baby and I would be coming home from the hospital on Christmas Day, I panicked. In getting our young son excited about the holidays, I'd put so much emphasis on the anticipatory fun of Christmas Eve, and I couldn't believe we'd miss spending it together. Then it occurred to me: Toddlers can't read calendars. A holiday can be whenever we say it is. So we called the day we came home "Christmas Eve" and celebrated Christmas on the 26th.
As Americans find ourselves with a pileup of deferred milestones to mark — a heavily concentrated season of overdue laughing, crying and one day even hugging — we're going to need to accept that timing matters less than we used to think.
You may be nearly 41 by the time you have your 40th birthday bash. Your family may decide to hold one memorial service to honor both your grandparents on the same day, even if they died six weeks apart, months ago. (Oh, the funerals. I hope revisiting so many losses, bringing so much partially processed grief back to the surface, also brings people some closure.) Weddings may require multiple sets of save-the-date-no-wait-change-the-date cards. Dates mean something, of course — they're what anniversaries are. But if you have to hold your 20th wedding anniversary party at 20 years and seven months, you're still celebrating quite an accomplishment, and that's more the point than the day on which you gather with friends to raise that toast.
Perhaps the greatest upside to putting back together all that fell apart is the clarity gained in the meantime. Waiting, whether we wanted the wait or not, provides time to think. That's why people say "Let's sleep on it" before making a big purchase. It's why you're supposed to count to 10 before saying something impulsive. As many times as we've counted to 10 since all this began, we ought to have a sense of what's truly worth our time and effort (fine, I'll get my teeth cleaned) and what might as well stay canceled for good. If you're dragging your feet about setting up the lunch meeting you were supposed to have with your boss in March, maybe there's a reason.
Haven't we had plenty of practice by now dividing everything into essential and nonessential? This system should continue to serve us well if we use it to do more than simply resume what we paused. Then we won't just be rescheduling our lives. We'll be reinventing them — a prospect that's thrilling in its own way.
Philpott is the author of the memoir-in-essays "I Miss You When I Blink" and a co-host of "A Word on Words" on Nashville Public Television. This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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