I’m painfully present in my life right now. Here’s how I’m coping during the pandemic

(Steven Banks / Los Angeles Times) Rumor has it that your shelter-in-place name is a combination of your current mood and the last thing you ate. “Hello, my name is Painfully Present Barbecue Chips.” It’s my Corona Persona — right here, right now. If I am being honest, this is, […]

 <span class="copyright">(Steven Banks / Los Angeles Times)</span>
(Steven Banks / Los Angeles Times)

Rumor has it that your shelter-in-place name is a combination of your current mood and the last thing you ate.

“Hello, my name is Painfully Present Barbecue Chips.” It’s my Corona Persona — right here, right now.

If I am being honest, this is, well, diametrically opposed to my pre-COVID-19 persona that would best be described as Distracted Girl Scout Cookie or perhaps Utterly Preoccupied Pupusa. I have two kids, a husband, a dog and a job I love. Like most of us, that usually equates to having a mile-long to-do list.

Today I sit, albeit uncomfortably, in the present, which is both an anomaly and an improvement. At my office, I am part of a small group that meets three times a week to meditate. As much as I love it, I have never felt particularly good at it. It’s been a place to catch my breath but never somewhere I have fully exhaled.

Now, as I sit in my house, like most people in the rest of the world, I catch a glimpse of my nails. That mint green gel manicure I thought was a good idea a month ago is patchy and chipped at best. This week my hair is on day six of a strategic bun, which allows me to keep my bangs blown out for the virtual meetings we’re having throughout the day for work.

I am grateful to my co-workers who show up to these meetings in a variety of stylish hats, faux-fur coats and other accessories that make doing business in this time of collective, wild uncertainty more palatable. Seeing bedrooms, children and partners coming into the frame reminds me that I am not alone. We are not alone. Disheveled kitchens, dogs barking and the lone cat strolling through a conversation are the great equalizers.

Erin Zelle's son, Jack, kneading dough in the kitchen. <span class="copyright">(Erin Zelle)</span>
Erin Zelle’s son, Jack, kneading dough in the kitchen. (Erin Zelle)

I check my phone, looking at Instagram. The shots of kids crocheting and painting by numbers, piecing together puzzles as they coexist with their siblings peacefully was inspiring on day one — and even day five. But today as I try to keep my home from looking like an episode of “Hoarders” and attempt to keep my younger child, who has spent the week transitioning to distant learning after an “extended spring break,” from turning into a zombie from too much “Super Mario Maker,” it just doesn’t seem like the best time to compare and despair. Therefore, I’ll focus on what’s in front of me — take it hour by hour if need be. And sometimes, minute by minute. I don’t want to get overwhelmed by the cacophony of news or fall down a rabbit hole of what-ifs. Stay in the moment.

Stay present. Breathe. Exhale.

I focus on the positives of right now. My high schooler is thriving in their virtual classroom. My family has eaten dinner together every night, and that elusive thing I was looking for — mindfulness — I think this might be it. It feels markedly different from the self-designed myopia I existed in previously.

Now, with time, and ironically, some breathing room, there’s been a shift. Baking bread with my son I find I am not watching the clock, anticipating where I need to be next. A call to my father feels different from prior conversations. Work has become more satisfying and simpler to lose myself in.

I feel gratitude.

I acknowledge acute fear, deep worry and discomfort because I haven’t totally lost my mind. I chat with old friends as we make virtual plans to “walk” together while catching up on the phone. I wave to neighbors from the other side of the street whom I might have avoided out of habit in the past. I take off my sunglasses and make eye contact. There is no to-do list, no ticking clock. There is just right now.

Erin Zelle's children, Sully and Jack, on a walk during the coronavirus pandemic that shut down Los Angeles. <span class="copyright">(Erin Zelle)</span>
Erin Zelle’s children, Sully and Jack, on a walk during the coronavirus pandemic that shut down Los Angeles. (Erin Zelle)

Is this “the what” I was supposed to take home from the mindfulness class I spent months white knuckling through years ago watching the clock? The same class I guilt-tripped myself for? When afterward I found it impossible to practice? I realize now I made no space for it. I tried to wedge it in. And yet here we are. What’s the alternative?

While I wake up daily and wonder if this is really happening, the refrain I find myself repeating to friends is: “I can’t seem to get my head around this.” And the truth is, I can’t. How does one rationalize this great unknown? For today, I will blow out my bangs once again and just keep going as Uncomfortable-But-Tuned-in Sumo Orange.

Erin Zelle is a television executive in Los Angeles.

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