Downsizing into COVID-19

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The Covid 19 virus is an equal-opportunity offender. In the abstract, vulnerability is uniform: anyone, anywhere, can contract the virus. But even where we manage to keep our bodies safe from Corona virus, managing our emotional health is its own challenge. Navigating inevitable moments of depression, hopelessness, frustration, and anxiety requires a lot of work.

Within the older adult population, there is a demographic for whom the virus restrictions have yielded a unique set of frustrations and feelings: those of us who, by coincidence, happen to have just gone through the retirement-and-downsizing moment as the Corona virus hit: selling the house and relocating (in our case, to an apartment).

What we had looked forward to for the past two years as “beginning the next stage of life” now often feels like having landed in “the last stage of life.” While in the abstract we know there will be, at some point, a resolution of Covid 19, everyday experience leaves me feeling like this stay-at-home culture is the “new normal.”

Our story is surely not unique: two years ago we had imagined the summer of 2020 as when we would step away from work; sell the house we had lived in for the past 22 years; find an apartment nearby with access to public transit and where we could walk to things we formerly had to drive to (and, we hoped, get down to one car); and embark on what Peter Laslett calls the third stage of life: flexibility, freedom and fulfillment.

We are still amazed at how well that plan unfolded. We spent 18 months cleaning out, giving away, and selling off things we wanted or needed to let go of. We undertook our own house inspection and then spent six weeks bringing in contractors to do repairs any buyer would surely ask to negotiate otherwise.

The warm northeast winter allowed us to go on the market early in February, and within four days we had a firm offer at asking price. Having already signed a lease on our new apartment to commence March 15, we were delighted when the buyers asked for an early March closing date. So far, so good!

But as the Corona virus landed full-force in those first two weeks of March, doors we would normally have strolled through began to close. Our anxious movers called to ask us to move up the moving date, fearful they would be shut down. Our Realtor called to say we had to move the closing date on the house sale up by 10 days, as the offices that conduct those transactions were about to be shut down by order of our governor.

Suddenly what we had planned as a well-spread-out and relaxed ten-day period of transition, practically as well as emotionally, was condensed into a five-day whirlwind. Fortunately, we squeaked through the doors we had to get through just as each closed behind us. We know and appreciate how lucky we were. And that appreciation, plus the process of unpacking and setting up a new home, carried us through the initial weeks of stay-at-home regulations.

But that was two months ago. Like others in our “we-just-retired-and-downsized-and-moved” demographic, the many activities we anticipated filling this unfamiliar time are now off-limits. A two-week summer trip was canceled. All of the theater subscriptions we have were suspended. The art-film movie house we can see from our window was closed. The restaurants we imagined dining in had to close. The train to town that we can get on in just a two-block walk runs only occasionally, and we would not feel safe riding anyway.

The anticipated visits from friends for whom we love to cook have been reduced to “zoom dinners.” With time now available for visits to and from distant relatives and friends, we are not ready to navigate airports and planes while the information about Covid 19 remains so imprecise and confusing. Day trips are now contingent on establishing whether safe access to somewhat-sanitized restrooms is available.

And although we have been in our new place for three months, we have yet to meet face to face the lovely people in our building who we have met by phone or email, or, in masks, at the mailboxes or while doing the laundry.

I get it — this is a pretty privileged place from which to kvetch. In this anxious-yet-hopeful moment of burgeoning awareness of the systemic racism that has been there all along; in light of the over 100,000 Covid-related deaths in the U.S. and the millions more around the world; in light of the economic implosion — my litany of lost opportunities is hardly consequential. Millions in our country and around the world would be grateful for even a percentage of the safety and security we have. In practical terms, we are inconvenienced, hardly at-risk as we go about our day-to-day lives.

And yet. Emotionally, it remains a difficult challenge. The  deferral of the things we had imagined doing after the move, and the consequent anxiety about not knowing when such things will “come back,” (and even when they do, how they will be changed, as the ways we live our lives will surely be changed) leaves us unsettled. And as all older adults know, the universal experience of “lost time” has its unique refraction when you reach the age where time is at a premium.

There are two other dimensions of being in the retirement-downsizing slice of the older adult population at this moment. While we were relieved at the idea of not having the responsibilities of homeowners, we did give up the comfort and familiarity of the house we knew. I often wonder: if we had known Corona was coming and known we’d be “sheltering in place” for what now looks like it could be months and perhaps even a year or more, would we have deferred the decision to move? While our new place is what we hoped it would be, it is not yet “home.” It is not yet “shelter.”

And then there is retirement. I went right from my last day of work in June 2019 to starting to clean out the house; preparing for sale; managing repairs; looking for an apartment; packing; and then moving. I am just now catching my breath and wondering how to fill time when the imagined opportunities have all been shelved for the foreseeable future.

The spiritual challenge is fighting to keep framing this moment as “the next stage” and not as “the last stage.” Some days, managing all of the uncertainty and anxiety around the Corona virus is understandably depressing. Some days, hope is in short supply, and patience seems like a luxury. Some days, all of the things we cannot do but once used to do, and the new things we looked forward to doing, can lead to overwhelming feelings of loss.

Here, Jewish tradition can be sustaining. The Jewish story for millennia has been one filled with  upheavals, followed by a slow regaining of balance, followed by an emergence of new and renewed ways of moving forward in life.

Our work is to keep moving forward, some days slower, some days faster, anticipating a time when the deprivations of the moment will be the memories of the future. The Jewish spiritual story is one that stubbornly insists on infusing hope into an unblinking acceptance of reality, with all of its difficulties and challenges. That hope may wax and wane, but it is never extinguished.

 

About Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Rabbi Richard Hirsh was the facilitator, and developed the curriculum for, the 2019-2020 pilot program of Jewish Women International (JWI), “Men As Allies: Leading Equitable Jewish Workplaces” (https://jewishmasculinity.org/men-as-allies). Rabbi Hirsh is a past co-chair and current member of the Clergy Task Force on Domestic Violence of JWI (https://www.jwi.org/clergy). He previously served as Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 1988-2014. Rabbi Hirsh was the editor of the journal The Reconstructionist from 1996-2006. He has served congregations in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Toronto, and was Executive Director of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and Jewish Chaplaincy Service from 1988-1993. Rabbi Hirsh has been a High Holiday rabbi at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto for the past two decades. He received his BA in Jewish Studies from Hofstra University, his MA in religion with a specialization in New Testament from Temple University, and was graduated as a rabbi from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. For more than two decades he has contributed commentary on the weekly Torah portion to, among others, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and the New Jersey Jewish News.

1 Comment

  1. Sharon & Jack Weinberg June 23, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    Todah robah, Rabbi. Thank you for reminding us to cling onto hope that we will get through this. Yasher Koach. Stay safe. B’shalom, Sharon & Jack

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