I think it is interesting how our perceptions and definitions of words change with circumstances and surroundings. Let’s take the word “essential.” Wouldn’t it be interesting, if it were possible, to compare what people would have listed as “essential” to them on January 1 to a list they made today, after weeks of quarantine, short supplies, and isolation?
Three years ago this summer, we had a prelude to understanding what was truly essential in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey here in Texas. That storm basically wiped our infrastructure off the map for several weeks. Many homes were obliterated. Many of those that weren’t were still not habitable. No electricity. No running water. No way to shop for food, much less a way to cook it. No gasoline. No ATM access to cash, and no machines working to take credit cards. A devastating situation like that does make you sharply aware of how much we take these things for granted. I will never again not notice the straight, tight power lines that run along the highway as we approach Rockport. They represent life-giving power. These are things we take for granted every day, until we are forced to go without them. And then we realize how essential they truly are.
With the current pandemic situation, we realize that even though we have all of the essentials above, there are other things now that are essential, too. Things that we didn’t even think of after Harvey, because we were just trying to put things together again so that we could get back to living our lives and rebuilding our community. Now we realize how essential cell phone and internet service are, while many of us are fortunate enough to be able to work from home. The internet is critical for everyone now, as a means of getting information, connecting with friends and loved ones in a time of isolation and quarantine. We have access to grocery stores and pharmacies, even if it’s not as convenient or if the supplies aren’t as bountiful as we used to take for granted. Toilet paper and paper towels, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies are still sparse but they are becoming more available as time passes and the supply chain resets.
There are other services and activities that, once we’ve been denied for a while, we are starting to feel are essential even though they once seemed like indulgences and luxuries. Manicures and pedicures, for one. Hair styling and coloring for another! What I wouldn’t give for an amazing spa day with a massage and a facial. Sure, a lot of the satisfaction of those things comes from the fact that they make us look and feel better, but I also think there’s more to it. There’s a deep connection we feel when we share a space with another person and they are caring for us. I’ve known the people who care for me in this way for nearly twenty years and they are like my family. They know more about some of the things that have gone on in my life than most of my other friends. I miss sharing that time and fellowship with them and can’t wait to go back. I wouldn’t have considered those services “essential” before, and maybe I still don’t – I mean, it isn’t like I would die without them. But I will definitely be more mindful of the luxury that it is when I’m able to go back.
The local authorities have insisted that the marina where we keep our boat remain closed. So, here we are, unable to use our boat to get out and feel the wind in our faces and appreciate the beauty of nature that surrounds us. There was a time that I wouldn’t have ever believed we’d have a boat much less have the opportunity to live somewhere where we could enjoy it. It still feels like a luxury to me and I appreciate it. Is it an essential service? No, but it’s a service that I won’t be able to get on that boat again without feeling incredibly grateful and appreciative.
I’ve been trying to do online yoga and Pilates classes, and they are great. They fill a void, they certainly do. I’m grateful for them. But again, there is something about sharing a physical space and a moment with others engaged in the same activity that helps you to feel part of a community. It gives you an emotional connection, even if you don’t know them and never see them again. A little bit of my life was shared with that person, and vice versa. We offered something to each other, even if it was imperceptible at the time. Some would say a return to a yoga or Pilates studio isn’t essential, and perhaps that’s true. But it is definitely going to be something that I will relish when we’re through this. And it feels, somehow, more essential to me now.
What about Sunday Mass? Growing up, my parents taught me that this was essential. As I’ve grown older, I’ll admit I don’t always make it a priority as I was taught. But Easter without Mass in a church? I watched a service online that was beautiful and meaningful, for sure. I even put on a dress and makeup to make it seem more formal. And, considering the circumstances, it was good. But there is something about sharing a worship space with others, even if you don’t know them, that is a meaningful part of the ceremony. There is the moment when we exchange the sign of peace that is affirmative. “Peace be with you.” Shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye, and seeing their kindness, their warmth, their distraction or even their pain. It is a kind of human connection that simply cannot be made online. I’d like to think that when this mess is over, I’ll look forward to going back to Mass more often and will be more consciously aware of this luxury.
This isn’t meant to be a flowery piece about how we’re all in this together and something good always comes out of every situation. We are, and it does. I’m not immune to the pain and suffering that we are all only beginning to feel right now because of the economic, emotional and physical consequences of not only this disease but the shutdown of our country as a result.
But for now, this Sunday evening, I think it’s healthy to reflect on the essentials in our lives, and those indulgences and luxuries that we now think of as essentials.
May we truly appreciate them now, and on the other side. That will be one of the gifts of this time.
In my life, I’ve found that when I align my wants and my needs, less becomes more.Laurie Buchanan, PhD