I wasn’t a particularly brave person before COVID-19. Saddled with a high-functioning (but persistent) anxiety disorder, I’ve always been pretty skilled at imagining worst-case scenarios. When I was a kid I strategized how I’d survive if my parents forgot me in the Idaho woods. As an adult I rehearse what I’d do if my entire neighborhood caught fire, or I lost my job for some horrifying personal reason, like incompetence or smelling bad. You would think that I’d be ready for something like this, having mentally prepared for so many other calamities my entire life, but I’m not.

This becomes painfully apparent when I decide to help out by sewing some non-surgical face masks. I head out to the craft shed I share with my husband, inspired by visions of the dozen or so masks I plan to whip out in a day. I take a few sunlit pictures of my tidy calico strips and rectangles for Instagram. My cutting wheel is sharp; my plastic ruler barely trembles. But two hours into it I’m completely undone. The two patterns I planned to mash up due to a reported elastic shortage don’t work together. I can’t find my stupid phone under all the fabric. My machine snarls up at least three times and I have to disembowel the bobbin carriage with a seam ripper and a tiny brush. After five hours I have one clumsily pleated rectangle and a pinned-on tie that doesn’t fit over the seams like I’d planned. It’s ugly. It’s going to save no one.

I always harbored the notion that I might be one of those people who falls apart over the tiniest thing but who would be amazing during a crisis. Standing in the doorway of the shed I feel that notion dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer in tepid water. I turn to Instagram for a quick inoculation of approval but somehow end up on Nextdoor, where people are posting links to three or four new mask patterns or arguing that fabric masks can’t keep out COVID-19 particles anyway so why bother. I’m overwhelmed by conflicting information, by disorganization, by self-loathing that I can’t even do this one simple thing that might help. My chest is tight. I have to remind myself to breathe, that this is voluntary, that I’ve got time.

But what if I don’t?

The fear snakes out from me, the shameful fear that in addition to my worries about health care professionals, and my friends who own or work in small businesses, and my 74-year-old mother, I’m panicking about my brain, about what I’ve left undone, about possibly leaving behind a life of false starts, of insignificance.

My experience of anxiety is one of being perpetually embarrassed. It’s flying off the handle, saying weird things, not being able to think of things to say at all. It’s overcommitting to things, wanting to be useful, then resenting those things and losing half the day to anxiety naps because that’s the only way to turn my skittering brain off. It’s taking three times as long as other people to do the same task because my mind is elsewhere. It’s making sketchy, morally questionable decisions in order to calm the constant feeling of unworthiness. It’s trying to fill the void with activity and hobbies and projects, with purpose.

And now, what?

I was working at the Inlander during 9/11 and in between memories of watching it all on the TV in our staff kitchen and bewildered stand-up editorial meetings where we scrapped the issue we’d just put together in order to put together a new one, I remember interviewing Terry Tempest Williams a week later and what she said about being in Washington, D.C., when the Pentagon was hit. She said they were told to run, this group of people at a literary event at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and that she and seven other people jumped into the same cab, and that the stunned cab driver turned to them saying, “And just where would you like to go?”

How much time have I lost to worst-case scenarios, to unlikely phantasms? Looking out at my back yard, the green tulips spearing up through the dead leaves we never raked up last year, I’m so grateful that this is happening in the spring and not the early days of winter. I’m grateful I can still work from home. On Monday I will return to “work” in earnest, ordering and curating lists of digital media for bored kids at home and their harried parents. I’m grateful for the hot dumpster stank of my dog’s breath, my husband’s puns and endless patience, the box of “House Wine” that’s taken on a whole new meaning.

“You’ve got to pull yourself together,” I whisper. I breathe for what feels like the first time in weeks. Maybe I can just let it all go, the frantic activity, the dream of achieving. Maybe I can just be a person, ordinary, flawed. The possibility floors me, the relief. Tonight my friend Leah will spin some vinyl and livestream it and I will listen while making a blackberry pie for my husband’s birthday. I will half-dance my flour-covered self to the Talking Heads and think of the people I love: my family, my hilarious, irreverent friends, so many dear faces I hope I get to see again. In the morning I will return to the sewing machine and I will knock out one mask, and then another. It’s a cliche I used to roll my eyes at, that this moment is all we have, but it’s true. This ordinary, terrifying, imperfect moment is what we have. It can be enough. ♦  

Sheri Boggs is a librarian with the Spokane County Library District. Her work has been published in the Inlander, Lilac City Fairy Tales, and other regional publications.

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