The week was a tough one for Anna Engle. Her moods shot high. Her moods dropped low.
"You need to come home, Anna," some people told her. "But actually don’t," they often added.
The messages were mixed because the situation was murky.
Engle, a 19-year-old from East Aurora, was in the middle of a year studying abroad in Italy. But now coronavirus was spreading throughout Milan. Should she return to Western New York, where she surely was going to have to isolate herself as the fight against coronavirus was just beginning? Or should she stay in Milan, where she was already on lockdown in an apartment and where the battle started a month earlier?
Engle, who is a sophomore at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and now taking online classes from an Italian university, consulted with her parents. As a family, they decided she would stay.
“I knew in a matter of time it would be just as serious anywhere else in the world,” Engle said in a series of interviews from Milan conducted on WhatsApp. “I feel safer staying put than traveling and endangering anyone around me.”
Deciding to stay in Milan provided only some clarity. Engle knows where she will be, but not how long she has to stay, nor how much freedom she will have. Right now, she can’t step outside her apartment building without filling out a permit form that allows for essentials such as grocery-store visits. That leaves her with plenty of time to wonder, worry and feel lonely. Those emotions were running strong until a few days ago.
That’s when she heard the singing.
It was about 6 p.m. and the sound was coming in through her bedroom window. Engle stepped onto her balcony. She saw people on their balconies, too, singing loudly. Then came the greeting.
The voice was coming from her right.
Two balconies away stood a young woman. She introduced herself as Dalia and said she is from China and living in Milan with a friend.
“It’s nice to meet you!” Engle said.
Meetings like this can be everyday occurrences during normal times and are oft-forgotten as polite small talk. But in this sudden age of social distancing, staying-at-home, locking-down and full-on quarantining, people are panning for happiness. Small conversations like this one are gold nuggets.
“This is beautiful,” Dalia told Engle, referring to the balcony singing.
It is needed.
• • •
The lockdown in Milan is more restrictive than what we are facing. Available testing data shows the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has been spreading for weeks longer in Italy than here, and the legal and societal differences between the countries have an impact on how restrictive measures are.
But the essence is the same: a fight with an invisible foe. We are doing it, in part, by creating distance from each other, and from the life that, just days ago, we took for granted.
Just two weeks ago, the only obstacles to going anywhere were time and money. Now they are the air and people around you, so most of us stay home. There’s no end date, only hope that leaders and doctors will figure this out. In the meantime, we need to keep everybody safe by living in some form of isolation.
We know how to do that physically: Soap. Sanitizer. Six feet. Stay home.
But we’re still figuring out how to do it emotionally.
“Just sitting around makes you go crazy — at least for me,” said Catherine Lippert, a 20-year-old Grand Island resident who had a head start on most of Western New York in experiencing social distancing and isolated living.
Lippert, a sophomore at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, was spending her spring semester studying abroad in Rome. She flew to Italy in late January and spent the next few weeks exploring Rome and traveling to other parts of the country. The country became her classroom.
“I’m super thankful to literally be able to go to the places I’m learning about,” she wrote on an Instagram post that pictured her at Vatican City, with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.
But then the adventure abruptly ended. Coronavirus was spreading quickly in Italy and Duquesne pulled its students out. Lippert came home, her classes now online, and following a recommendation from the university, she voluntarily stayed out of the public for two weeks. She took her temperature twice daily and showed no symptoms, but still stayed mostly inside, save for walks. She kept her distance from others, too, including her family.
“The biggest thing is staying active,” said Lippert, whose period of strict isolation ended just as New York and the country began instituting it widely. “It’s so easy just to sit all day, every day.”
Living homebound forced Lippert to make use of what she could, in the place she was, and the time she had. That’s a reality now facing people across Western New York and around the country. For many, that is becoming apparent in simple and almost obvious things: Can’t go to a gym? Exercise at home. Can’t get a haircut? Brush off the clippers or scissors – if you dare.
Families with kids who are doing school projects at home, or want to find entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen, may get a little more creative.
“That’s what I think we’re going to see families doing now. We’re going to be raiding the recycling bins to come up with things,” said Beth Slazak, who lives in Wyoming County with her husband and works out of her home as manager of education and events for the nonprofit Creative Education Foundation. “We’re going to start looking at what we have in our homes, and how can we use it differently.”
Slazak and her colleagues are going to be offering a regular series of webinars teaching creative problem-solving tools they can use while living in our new, distant reality. They started Thursday with a session focused on a concept called “3I’s.”
Viewers were asked to list everything on their minds, and then put a check mark next to what’s important, a star next to things over which they have influence, and an arrow next to anything that requires imagination. The idea is to help people set priorities and declutter their minds.
“Everybody defines creativity as out-of-the-box thinking, but we tend to be our most creative when we are stuck in a box,” Slazak said. “When you’ve got limitations, then you look at, ‘What might be all of the ways I can get this done?’ ”
That works even in the simplest of ways for the smallest of needs — which now may be more important than you think.
• • •
Shawn VanPatten, who works for the Cheektowaga firm Marketing Mayor and as a WKSE-FM radio host known as “Shy Guy Shawn,” started a self-imposed home-isolation period a week and a half ago.
He was on a solo vacation earlier this month to Sierra Leone, Ghana and Morocco when President Trump announced a European flight ban. VanPatten’s vacation was ending a day after Trump’s order was going into effect, and he didn’t want to risk complications when trying to return home.
So he decided to leave a day early and worked to find a series of flights. His route back home took him through Europe, where coronavirus is spreading, and though VanPatten showed no signs of sickness, he decided to stay home.
The professional part of that decision was easy – VanPatten can do his work from his Amherst home, where he lives with his cat. Another host could fill in on his weekend radio shift.
“The only difficult part about it was leaving myself out of social gatherings,” said VanPatten, whose favorite such event every year is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That, too, was ultimately canceled, but even before it was, VanPatten decided to set up his own tongue-in-cheek St. Patrick’s Day party.
He rummaged around his cupboards for anything Irish and came up with a can of limited-edition Reuben Pringles and a green bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey. He put on a shamrock-colored Dublin shirt and held up the chips and whiskey for a selfie, which he posted to social media.
“This is how someone who’s on quarantine celebrates St. Patrick’s Day,” VanPatten said in a telephone conversation. “I’m getting my hands on anything I have in here that’s Irish. That’s my Irish dinner: Reuben-flavored Pringles.”
The experts say that’s a keenly important sort of connection.
“Social animals get anxious when they don’t have social contact,” said David Ropeik, a Massachusetts-based author and speaker who specializes in the psychology of risk. “Facebook and Skype can only do so much.”
Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” sees risk in the “gigantic uncertainty” our country is facing. “Which is anxiety-provoking,” he added in a telephone interview, “and which then suppresses our immune system.”
Wrap that inherent uncertainty with the social distance and you have an even bigger ball of anxiety that is rolling over our natural ability to fend off bugs, germs and disease. But there’s hope: By truly keeping our distance, we may be able to avoid the virus. And by finding small joys, we can lower our stress and boost our defenses.
Maybe that small joy is a home gym, or a can of Pringles.
Or maybe it’s the people a couple of balconies away.
• • •
Engle needed that in Milan. Meeting her neighbor was an instant uplift. Engle and her roommate, Matias Garces, devised a tin-can telephone and tossed a can to Dalia and her roommate. Now the four of them use it to communicate. “It was amazing,” Engle said. “It was the first social interaction we had in so long.”
They also began trading gifts by tossing a rubber glove connected by string and putting surprises inside: Dalia sent a pair of Chinese bookmarks for Engle and Garces, who in turn sent over tea, hot chocolate and a game from Garces’ home country, Chile.
One recent evening after dinner, Engle and Garces decided they had to do something more to keep their spirits up. They made coffee, grabbed a small stack of paper and colored markers, and wrote a handful of notes to people in their apartment building.
One of them read:
We wanted to say hello and ask how you are during this time! We know it can be quite lonely during these times, so we wanted to remind you that you are NOT alone!
Keep strong, and if you ever need anything, we are here.
— Anna & Matias
They stepped into the hallway and slid the notes under people’s doors. Engle and Garces started receiving notes back under their door. One of them came from their new balcony friends. It was a picture of people talking through tin-can phones, with the words “Open Your Door.”
They did, and sitting outside was an inflated rubber glove inscribed in marker with the words: Have a nice day! 🙂