Irene Panke Hopkins
Irene Panke Hopkins

have started this column at least a dozen times. Each time I return to it, something has occurred in the world that makes what I wrote just the day before either outdated and irrelevant or too narrow in scope.

My first attempt was to write about the stupor that is setting in as this pandemic nightmare continues with no end in sight. Trying for some humor, I called the condition Pandemic Lethargy Syndrome — the feeling that I should be writing more, I should be exercising more, I should be (fill in the blank) more. When I returned to it, considering the deaths that have devastated families, the overwhelmed healthcare workers, the increasing homelessness and the unemployment that is affecting millions, it just sounded like a spoiled whine. So I scratched that angle.

Trying for a positive spin, I wrote about the freedom I am experiencing to ponder, to notice, to freely associate. The tempo inside my head has slowed to a pace that feels more manageable. More natural. We have been tethered to the mighty treadmill for a long, long time. It has controlled our lives, limiting our ability to do the things we really want to do. Well, the treadmill just threw us off. And I don’t miss it one bit. But where will we land, I wondered as I wrote. Again, the position of privilege from which I was writing caused me to crumple it up and throw it in the virtual trash bin.

As did writings about becoming more self-sufficient. All the crockpot and home cooking I’m doing to avoid runs to the grocery store and stretch our food budget. Avoiding hair salons, letting my hair grow long and, when gray turned out not to be my best look, coloring it myself. I mused about the positive effects of exercising outdoors instead of at the gym.

But then the smoke. Good heavens. The smoke changed everything once again.

We were sealed in our homes, waiting for the noxious air to clear. If we are lucky enough to have homes, that is. I can’t feel sorry for myself when I drive past tents and devastation in my own neighborhood. Yesterday I saw a man, filthy and bedraggled, sitting on a curb next to a tent encampment with his head in his hands. Any idea I had for a column about the smoke and the pandemic evaporated with that image.

So what do I do? What do I write about all of this that would resonate with readers? I can only speak from my experience so here’s what I have to say.

I am grateful for my life. I am grateful for a roof over my head. I am grateful for food on my table. I am grateful not to have lost anyone I love to COVID.

We are building a home in Port Townsend where we will trade our live-aboard boat life for a home where we can stretch out and gather our family. Doing the finish work ourselves is a grueling but satisfying endeavor. It’s a wonderful project with forward momentum.

I am grateful for my grandson, born in late July. He holds all the promise of the future and the love that is focused on him has enriched my family. Observing my daughter becoming a mother and seeing the love growing between that tiny baby and his parents is indescribably encouraging. Even without a pandemic, social unrest, smoky skies and political insanity, this would be a gift. But the contrast between this little person who knows nothing of the crazy time he has been born into allows us to take a break from it now and then. Time stops when I hold him. Anxiety is eased as I observe my daughter and her partner evolving into their new roles as parents. And, again, there is hope for the future in my life.

The truth is, it’s all valid. We are all experiencing and dealing with it in our individual ways. Some people are growing food. Many are working from home with all the benefits that brings including wearing comfortable clothes all day long. Others, unable to afford rent, have returned home to live with family. We are going back to a way of living our lives in a way that was once considered normal. And we should probably get used to it because it is likely to be the way things are for a long time to come.

We don’t need guilt on top of all that we are dealing with. There is just so much we can control. But, if we are among the fortunate, we also need to curb our complaints.

Instead, of what’s not able to happen, I want to focus on what I am doing. Building a house with my husband of 33 years. Nurturing a relationship with the newest member of our family. Continuing to conserve and re-use and recycle. To cook things from scratch. To utilize resources. To be as politically active as I can. To use the time I have to have a positive effect on those around me. And to remember how fortunate I am.

Course Correction: Look for things in your life to be grateful for. Eliminate guilt or “should do’s” from your thoughts. Keep recycling. Stay positive. Don’t give up.

— Irene Panke Hopkins is a freelance writer and essayist.