Life in the Time of Coronavirus

By Cheryl Scheir

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” 

-Edmund Hilary, who, with Tenzig Norgay, became the first man to summit Mt. Everest


I will conquer this. 


That is what I told myself the first time, when the cashier barked at me to stay behind the blue line until the person in front of me was finished completely. That is what I told myself the second time, when the mask-less stocker with the half-aisle-blocking cart scolded me for entering on the “do not enter” side of the aisle. That is what I told myself the third time, when the man behind me blew his nose under his mask, then pushed my groceries down the conveyor, forcing me to return my Golden Oreos, then, once at home, liberally spray Lysol to decontaminate every item that went down the conveyor while my back was turned. 


Sir with the runny nose, please see sentence 1 of this paragraph. I was supposed to be conquering this. 


The truth is that much like high school—a grand exercise in self-consciousness, side-eye shaming, playing by rules that you struggle to understand or, if you understand them, adapt to them—life in the time of coronavirus cannot be conquered. How could it be? The virus is a potentially deadly, invisible force that is most likely impervious to the imperceptible decontamination forcefield that my imagination has erected over the threshold of my front door. It is not something that I, armed only with foaming antibacterial soap and my puny force of will, can conquer. 


Enter my new motto: everything is an experiment. 

Adopted from graphic designer Tibor Kalman, this magical phrase describes how I feel like every time I undertake an otherwise mundane task in our now transformed world. 

  • Reuniting two empty-nesters and their college students under one roof with only so much wi-fi capacity: an experiment in social contracting

  • Sunday afternoon ZOOM Family Feud: an experiment in techno-relational game theory

  • Attending a Facebook wedding, followed by a drive-by reception: an experiment in modern, contamination-free ritual, with a secondary endpoint of overall survival rate of guests who actually ingest the well meant but dangerously homemade wedding cupcakes 


If everything is an experiment, then I am both the observer of the experiment and its subject. I participate alongside all of the other stressed out people in my community (ie, everyone) who are currently pushing from day to day in our pandemic environment. 

My hypothesis: we will survive without driving each other to a graceless state of chaos. 

Study limitations: none of us knows what life on the other side of this should look like. 

My serendipitous discovery in the midst of this experiment in self-isolation, self-preservation, and self-reflection is that I am witnessing all around me a transfiguration of the commonplace, another magical phrase, which philosopher Arthur Danto uses as a working definition of art. 

  • If a basketball is a commonplace object for sport, I see it transfigured in the hands of my elementary age neighbor, for whom dribbling and shooting is a daily ritual that now gets him through endless hours of non-structured, school-less days 

  • If ZOOM is a commonplace tool for communication, I see it transfigured every Wednesday night when it supports a fifteen-minute stretch of silence that is my group spiritual direction meditation

  • If asking “how are you” is the classic banal greeting of polite society, I see it transfigured in check-in calls and texts to and from family, friends, and colleagues who have found the right time (a pandemic) and right place (home) to describe how they’re really doing because we’re all doing this together


Thinking of my day-to-day life as an experiment frees me to abandon perfection, expect curveballs, lie awake when I could be asleep, and lose it every so often without telling myself that this is anything but normal. Thinking of this day-to-day life as a studio for artful transfigurations of the commonplace makes me pay attention to the otherwise mundane goings on inside my home and outside my window, including the triumphant joys of having plenty of sweet and the “life goes on” reminders chirped by the birds in my backyard, with an eye to what they have become. 


Yes, I am sorrowful about the loss of life, the suffering, and the horrors of life in the time of coronavirus, so are we all. Period. 

At the same time, too, I am grateful—for the art this situation has wrought in me and around me. I look forward to this experiment ending and a new one, called “life after,” beginning; I hope that I will resist the pull of “before.” I think about how we have become better, together, and what that will mean for our future. 


And I wonder, with all of those insights, have I conquered this, after all?