Twenty four hours before a global pandemic sent me back to Louisiana for the first time in nearly two years, I found myself speeding down Massachusetts Highway 128, at 10 p.m., to go on a date with a pink-haired girl I have never met before, Emily. We had been talking for two weeks through a mutual friend, and if I didn’t see her then, I might never see her or even get to meet her.
It was a surreal, gooey date; I felt like a middle schooler again. We spent 14 hours together and watched the sun rise from her back porch. But now, I look out on my family’s man-made lake in Converse, La.; red dust swirls in the heaving early-spring heat, the backyard is torn and upheaved from hundreds of angry wild-hog hooves. The back porch creaks and threatens to collapse on account of the missing planks. How will I spend these newly-gained months home? What is important to me? What is, at the end of the day, important to any of us? We haven’t faced times like this before, not times that have stretched our view of freedom or made us question what we really are willing to let go of to ensure the safety of others.
Turns out, what’s really important to me isn’t Lego. It isn’t my collection of plush that collects dust at Gordon College, my school that sits frantically idle in increasingly infected-Massachusetts. I won’t be going back there for a long time; I won’t see my college friends for maybe six months. It’s possible I won’t see some of those people ever again; their friendship and company will drift away as so many things tend to do. That has to be okay.
On the drive out to the family farm, I stopped to fill my hungry gas tank with nearly historically-low gasoline. I approached the cashier with a new feeling: heavy skepticism of everyone around me. I look at everyone with suspicion. Did the guy with the backwards ball cap really need to come out here for a can of Monster Energy? Was the chewing tobacco really worth it? Where have these people come from, and where are they going?
As I make the left turn back onto the sprawling, lonely Louisiana highway, I think about the ramifications of that last question in my life. How can I use this time to be a more responsible friend, a better steward of my money, a better writer? I’m determined to write more of the silly memoir I’m plunking away at. I will spend more time with my family. I’ll finish that 1,000 origami cranes project. Today will finally be the day that I do these things! Easier said than done.
A million newly-listless bodies sit across America pondering these same questions. I know Emily is thinking these things; we talk almost every day after that first date. She was laid off from both of her jobs due to the growing pandemic. These coming months will stretch the character of everyone in this nation, but I’m doing my best to see this new time as a blessing. When else will I spend this much time with family? When else can I intentionally focus on writing, on my massive backlog of video games, on those closest to me. Time is only what we make of it.