Welcome to the Wormhole
You will need:
- A face mask (not the Halloween kind)
- Comfy pajamas
- Rice, beans, and other shelf-stable foods
- An electronic device and internet connection
- Hand sanitizer
- Toilet paper
- A child’s training potty and bedsheet (I’ll explain later)
Things to leave behind:
- Roller bag and passport
- “Real” pants, high heels, and jewelry
When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, ushering in 2020, there was a tear in the space-time continuum. The earth passed through a wormhole. We all ended up in an alternate reality.
I had big plans for 2020. My husband and I had tickets to Iceland. My daughter was going to attend this amazing nature preschool. And I was going to bring homemade guacamole to our neighborhood happy hour in a bowl with the words, “It’s five o’guac somewhere,” engraved on the rim.
But the wormhole. I didn’t know about the wormhole. None of us knew about the wormhole.
The ball was dropped, “Auld Lang Syne” was sung, people kissed, and champagne was drunk. (Or, you were asleep after an average evening wrangling two small children into their seats at Grandma’s dining room table.)
And there was the wormhole. And suddenly you and I and planet earth were thrust into an alternate reality. And everything got turned upside down.
This is my story of 2020. How I survived the year and came to discover the existence of the wormhole. How I traveled through the stages of grief, mourning the stable world we lost and the life I had before the clock struck midnight. It is the story of my struggle to make sense of this alternate reality and forge ahead in my new life here.
My Life Before
Before the wormhole, I went places and visited people.
My family flew to visit Grandma, Grandma flew to visit us, and we occasionally flew places for vacation.
My kids went to preschool two mornings a week. We had playdates with their classmates. And sometimes my life included magical things like babysitters, alone time, and adult conversation.
On the weekends, our family attended Valentine’s dances and children’s concerts, visited splash pads and playgrounds, took parent-child swim class as a family, went out to eat at buffets and our favorite grain silo-turned-restaurant, and went on our annual State Fair pilgrimage to see a teenage pageant princess get her likeness carved in butter.
My neighborhood had monthly happy hours, during which my husband and I would channel whatever small slice of us was naturally extroverted and capable of conversing with others. And we’d chat with our friendly neighbors about lawncare mishaps, who was going to cover snow removal for whom during the holidays, and how the Girl Scout cookie sales were going.
And every Sunday at 6 PM my brother, sister, dad, and I (and our families) would gather at my childhood home for “Sunday dinner.” It was a decade-long tradition, involving spaghetti (or spaghetti squash after my dad’s health-conscious girlfriend joined the mix), kitchen fiascos, teasing, political tirades, and enormous helpings of dessert.
I began to have inklings of the wormhole’s existence in early March, somewhat before the rest of my social group. I attribute this to the fact that I watch the national news religiously, which in early 2020 was peppered with ominous rumblings about “the novel coronavirus” and “the Wuhan lockdown.”
I mentioned these things in passing to others. It was sort of a joke: “Hey Rach, want to meet up at a coffee shop this weekend? I want to go out and do something before we get trapped in the zombie apocalypse.” (We went. I had a delicious mocha. A child threw up on the bench next to us, and I haven’t seen my best friend in real life in over a year.)
I went to a baby shower and brought it up. But it was clear that this was an awkward thing to do when we were passing newborns around—“Just wash your hands before you hold him.”—and hugging people we had never met before—“Hi. I’m Jessica’s sister. Nice to meet you.” Hug.—and serving ourselves pretzels with our un-washed, un-sanitized hands from a buffet in a standing-room-only kitchen (sometimes even after hugging strangers or holding snot-leaking babies).
I went to Sunday dinner at my dad’s, where I observed that something seemed different about the world, that perhaps all this stuff in the news was evidence that something had fundamentally changed. And they told me I was overreacting: “Don’t you remember when everyone was upset about how we were all going to die of Ebola? And Zika? And nuclear warfare? Did any of that happen?”
(On that note, I unceremoniously left my childhood home for what would be the last time. There was never a Sunday dinner again. Our decade-long tradition ended with no fanfare whatsoever. And my dad ended up selling his house in the market boom fueled by people fleeing high-density living.)
The next day at my kids’ preschool I raised the issue: “So… How about all that stuff in the news? I mean… What’s the school district’s plan if people start getting sick around here? You know, my son has a cough, and I’ve been feeling self-conscious about it lately.”
Everyone looked at me like I was a weirdo talking about wormholes.
I was told: “People know the difference between a ‘sick’ cough and a ‘regular’ cough,” and “People should just stay home when they’re sick.” It was clear: No, the school district does not have a contingency plan for wormholes.
Then the whole class was invited to a fellow student’s house for a playdate during spring break the next week.
(We never met up for that playdate. My kids never set foot in that school again. Months later, we yelled goodbye to the teachers through a closed car window during a “drive-by goodbye.” And many of the other parents later indicated during “Zoom preschool” that they or their families had been seriously ill over spring break.)
The wormhole was about to make its presence known to the people around me, but it was going to reveal itself more fully to me first.
Discovery of the Wormhole
On Wednesday I woke up sick. That cough I was so embarrassed my son had? Well, I had it now. My husband assured me I could suppress my cough long enough to drop my daughter off at school and pick her up again without drawing attention to myself. But 9:30 came and went, and we didn’t leave for school. Not only was I not-at-all confident I could suppress my cough for the required 2–3 minutes, I wasn’t feeling well enough to drive.
By 11, I had a fever. By 11:30, I called my husband at work and left him a voicemail saying that I was sick, that he needed to take (precious) vacation and come help me with the kids, and that I didn’t want to call my dad just in case the wormhole was real, not that I actually thought the wormhole was real, haha.
At 1:15 when my husband got home after calling 3 times and not getting a response, I was lying on the living room floor because it wasn’t worth the effort to get back on the couch. My kids were using an armchair as a trampoline. Wet pants had been abandoned on the rug. No one had had lunch, although lunchtime had come and gone.
And I knew: The wormhole was real. The wormhole had happened. The rules of life had changed.
And I was scared. Because I was sicker than I had been in 10 years. And whatever I was sick with had knocked me on my back—literally—in about 5 hours’ time. And whatever the new rules of life were in this post-wormhole world, I didn’t know them, and no one else seemed to know them either.
My husband gave me medicine and chicken soup and put me to bed. The next day, I saw the doctor for my “flu-like symptoms.” She dismissed my wormhole-related concerns and explicitly stated that I didn’t need to quarantine or isolate or anything. There are no such things as wormholes, everything in her disapproving tone and demeanor said to me.
(I recovered in about a week. Within 2 weeks, my clinic was “respiratory-only.” I don’t know what had actually made me sick. What I do know is that I was scared straight. I was going to fight the wormhole head-on, with as much excessiveness as I could muster.)
This Weird Post-Wormhole World
So: We passed through a wormhole. What does that mean? What is the deal with the alternate reality on the other side?
The gist is that life is weird here. Sometimes terrible, sometimes good, but very weird. Since the wormhole, I’ve done many strange things:
- I’ve “gone to the bathroom” in a child’s training potty covered by a bedsheet on the side of the freeway—many times—to avoid public restrooms contaminated with clouds of virus-filled poop-spray.
- I’ve hidden with my kids in a bedroom in our snowsuits with all the windows open despite sub-freezing temperatures for the better part of a day because a furnace repair person was in the basement, potentially spewing aerosolized droplets into our HVAC system.
- I’ve built corrals out of chicken wire to allow my children and niece to play “together” and blow bubbles at each other while remaining 6 ft apart. (And then I wondered: How many virus-laden bubbles would have to pop on a child’s face for them to become infected?)
- I committed a misdemeanor—twice—when I violated the governor’s order in December and went on a walk with my dad. And in this universe that makes me a badassed rebel flouting the law.
The Dark Side
The wormhole has an obvious dark side. I’m not here to depress you, so I’m not going to harp on the details, but we’re talking millions of people dead, hundreds of millions sick, probably billions isolated, and global economic upheaval.
However, as someone currently living in the post-wormhole world, my psychological needs require I stay in denial of most of that stuff most of the time. So I try to think of the negatives more in terms of self-centered crabby things that are unpleasant and concerning, but that are unlikely to send me into an emotional tailspin. For instance:
- You have unlimited family time (and nothing else) or too much alone time (and nothing else) or an empty schedule (and nothing to fill it with) or a billion things you must get done right now (and all of them are necessary and stressful).
- There is more trash on the street (because people like me who used to pick it up and dispose of it in exchange for a sense of self-righteousness now walk-on-by filled with a combination of guilt for becoming a bad person, fear of death from fomites, and environmentally-motivated despair).
- You realize that some mundane social interaction (like smiling and waving through the window at the person putting groceries in your trunk) was the most social interaction you’ve had in a week with anyone outside your household (and how good it feels to see their wave in response and imagine they’re smiling back at you from behind their mask), and how sad that is.
- You discover the joy of using hand sanitizer in sub-freezing temperatures. (It burns. It pulls all the heat from your fingers and turns them into frostbitten popsicles faster than you can say “novel coronavirus.”)
- You miss absurd things about the pre-wormhole world like small talk, touching door handles without a second thought, and displaying your nose and teeth in public.
The Bright Side
I also try to support myself psychologically by identifying things that I actually enjoy about the post-wormhole world. Such as:
- My kids have become besties (in part because they have literally no other options).
- “Vaxhole” is a word here, and it is fun to use it to tease people gloating about their vaccination status.
- My husband can work from home a couple days a week, and that means either he’ll make lunch, or he’ll watch the kids while I make lunch. Regardless, the likelihood of us eating something other than “peanut butter toast” becomes non-zero, and the likelihood of us eating a fruit and/or vegetable increases infinitely.
- My kids consider hand coverings a standard part of the playground dress code, even in the summer. And it is adorable to see them romping around on the jungle gym in shorts, tee shirts, and huge puffy mittens rated for 0°F.
Grief for the Pre-Wormhole World
Throughout 2020 and beyond, everyone has been working through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—for the world we lost to the wormhole. Here are some stories of how those around me and I have fared.
Denial of the wormhole can take many forms: from public statements that there is not a wormhole and never has been, to more subtle beliefs about how life in the wormhole is about to be over “in 2 weeks,” “by Easter,” “by the summer,” and “as soon as we get a vaccine.”
So: It was mid-March 2020, and it was time to call my mother-in-law and thank her for the “thank you” card she had just sent us (which in my family would be nonsense, but is par for the course in my husband’s).
In this card, she apologizes for cancelling her planned March visit, but reassures us that she’ll come instead in May, after she gets back from her trip to Italy and “all this is over.”
When getting settled for the call, I asked my husband, “So… should we tell her?”
“What?… About the wormhole?!” he exclaimed.
“Yeah, about the wormhole!”
“No! She’ll think you’re crazy.” Then he added with a chuckle, “And, I mean, she already thinks you’re crazy.”
“Good point,” I said smiling, “But then I guess you’ll have to do all the talking. I’m a bad liar, and I can’t pretend I don’t know about the wormhole.”
“Fine,” he said, and he proceeded to ask her all about what she was planning to do on her April 2020 dream (or perhaps more accurately, “fantasy”?) vacation in Italy.
For me, wormhole-induced anger seemed to bubble up everywhere, provoked by the things you’d might expect: the sight of my children’s unused passports, the full parking lot at the bar near my house, and at photos posted of my smiling “friends” at indoor parties. It also appeared in some unexpected places.
In particular, my anger came in the form of an irrational level of frustration with my house. In the beginning of the lockdown, I began to notice things: scratches on the countertop, a small section of the ceiling inexplicably without “popcorn,” the nasty orange-ish stuff growing on the sealant between the wall and the bathtub. After a few weeks, I saw only these things.
I thought to myself, “If I’m trapped here forever, this is the only bathroom I will ever use. Do I want to be the kind of person who exclusively ‘goes to the bathroom’ while staring at a gross line of mildew, or mold, or whatever-this-is?”
I would complain to my husband about how disgusting the bathroom was and how we (he) needed to fix it somehow. He’d agree. But: When? And: How? And really the problem was so big and awful we ought to just redo the bathroom. He’d note the chipped and unmatched tiles, the cracks in the floor, the water damage on the wood work, and the visible metal wrench someone caulked in place under the toilet bowl to keep it level.
And then I would realize: the house was driving him crazy as well.
Eventually, we would decide to put on our horse-blinders and fix all our bathroom woes “when all this was over.” And we would stop talking about it for a while.
But the anger was there. Many times a day, every trip to the bathroom, the anger at the wormhole was there.
Now, the traditional, “God, if you undo the wormhole, I promise I’ll pray more,” wasn’t really a part of my 2020 experience. But the internet has explained to me that there is another kind of bargaining people do, characterized by “what-if” statements, like: “What if we had moved to New Zealand and were living a normal life right now?” and “What if we had had the foresight to maintain an emergency supply of toilet paper?” There was definitely some of that going on.
But more than that, 2020 was a year full of bargaining—literally—amongst all of my closest family members—again and again—for what it would take for us to see each other in the flesh. We were constantly forced to participate in complex, intrusive, agonizing, safety- and preference-related negotiations. For instance:
My dad: What if we talked to your kids through a closed window?
Me: And you would stand outside in the snow? Fine.
My dad: And we could put window stickers on our side of the window to entertain the kids.
My dad: And we would bring another pack of stickers to give your kids to decorate their side of the window.
Me: Only if we can sanitize them easily or quarantine them for 3 days.
My dad: Well, what if we put the stickers in a covered box, let it sit for 3 days, and then dumped the contents of the box on your front step without touching anything and while wearing masks? Would you let your kids touch the stickers then?
Me: Okay, fine.
(The kids played with the stickers for a total of 5 minutes while the adults screamed at each other through the closed window. My dad and his girlfriend tried not to show how uncomfortably cold they were, until they realized they would have to drive 20 minutes to use a bathroom. Then a great fuss was made about how cold it had suddenly gotten, and they left.)
This one is straightforward. Living in the post-wormhole world is objectively depressing, even if you’re just thinking totally self-centeredly and ignoring the millions of dead bodies.
First off, everything that was on my calendar on, say, March 10th, 2020 got cancelled. Everything: my in-laws’ visit in March and then May, playdates, every Sunday dinner ever, at least a year’s worth of neighborhood happy hours, all the spring and summer holidays, our trip to Iceland, my cousin’s wedding, the State Fair, my daughter’s year at the nature preschool: it was disappointment after disappointment. I cannot tell you how sad it is to look at the calendar month after month and see black scratched-out marks and nothing else.
One thing my family refused to cancel was Thanksgiving.
Sometime in June, my sister revealed the beginnings of what would become our “grand plan.” The Sunday dinner gang was going to see each other for Thanksgiving—indoors—by outsmarting the wormhole.
We were going to strictly quarantine for 2 weeks beforehand. There would be no working in the office, no doctor appointments, no grocery store trips, no getting within 6 ft of anybody. We made a spreadsheet of our rules, our glorious rules that would protect us and allow us to exert control over the wormhole. Thanksgiving was the light at the end of the tunnel, the thing—the only thing—that gave us hope and the strength to say “no” to invites from wormhole-denialists and their temptations of normalcy.
But the wormhole wasn’t finished with us. The fall surge in cases began.
Our group had 4 households and 11 people. The governor put out an order that indoor gatherings could have a max of 3 households and 10 people.
My brother and his wife bowed out. They didn’t want to quarantine anyway. They wanted to see their friends and go to work and dine indoors. (Fine.)
Then the hospitals started filling. And my dad’s girlfriend (who is a doctor) couldn’t swing quarantine anymore. (Fine. Go save people’s lives. See if I care.)
I still had my sister. We were going to have a normal Thanksgiving. We had been planning this for months. We were going to put an extension leaf in our table and bring the chairs up from the basement. We were going to park on our driveway and hide her car in our garage so the neighbors wouldn’t judge us. Our kids were going to play together unmasked, indoors, for the first time since that fateful last Sunday dinner 8 months ago. We had a spreadsheet. With rules. And we had another spreadsheet with a list of all the recipes we were making (more than half of which were vegan for my sister.) We ordered all our groceries 2 weeks ahead of time. My husband started working exclusively from home.
And then the governor put out a new order: no social gatherings of any kind—indoors or outdoors. Thanksgiving—cancelled. And the kicker: violation was a misdemeanor. Now, the governor said explicitly he wasn’t going to crash our party to hand out citations. However, my husband’s, my sister’s, and her husband’s jobs all require above-the-board behavior at all times, meaning: their jobs could be in jeopardy if they violated the order and we hosted 3 people for Thanksgiving dinner.
But there was a loophole. We could fight the wormhole yet!
It was Thursday (one week before Thanksgiving). The order didn’t go into effect until Saturday. We could celebrate on Friday. Tomorrow! We already had all the food. I’d just need to cook it. I’d stay up all night if I had to!
I started cooking, and I also started a text chain with my sister about how our grand plan could yet be saved. Hope was not lost! I would not betray our sacred pact to resist the wormhole and attain one day of Thanksgiving normalcy in a year of chaos and isolation!
But my sister didn’t feel the same.
She called (never a good sign) and started by asking what we had been doing in the 2 weeks prior. Had we been following all the rules? We had.
Then she shifted and started talking about “the spirit of the order.”
At that point I may have offered to write a letter to the governor to request an exemption from the order. What about then? Would it be okay to have Thanksgiving then?
She pivoted and started talking about case rates and the dangers of the wormhole.
I just kept saying, “But our rules! Our rules will protect us! Our rules have been designed to outsmart the wormhole regardless of case rates! We had a plan. It’s in a spreadsheet. We followed through. We have discovered the rules of the wormhole and found a way to attain normalcy despite it!”
And then she responded forcefully, “No. It is impossible to fully-comprehend the mystery of the wormhole. I’m sorry.” And then she hung up.
I cried. And screamed. And cursed my sister and the governor and the wormhole. And I broke apart into a wormhole-induced despair the likes of which I cannot adequately describe.
And then I got to work.
I had a (half-vegan) Thanksgiving dinner (large enough to feed 11) for my 2 small children and husband to make. I would not let the wormhole deny them their day of Thanksgiving joy.
On the big day, I heated the 12 or so dishes I had prepared in the interim week. I showered. I curled my hair. I put on full makeup. And a necklace and earrings. And “real” pants. I set the table with a candle centerpiece. I drank La Croix out of a crystal chalice we usually keep in a box in the garage. And I sat down with my family and ate our Thanksgiving feast off my grandmother’s china with a smile on my face.
I pretended I didn’t notice that our turkey tasted like it had been in the freezer since March when my husband panic-bought it in a moment of weakness. Or that my homemade dinner rolls had the texture of hard dumplings. Or that half the food was vegan. Or that there was no leaf in the table.
But that night after my kids had gone to bed, I allowed myself to indulge in what can only be described as a spectacular “ugly cry.” I let my mascara pour off my face onto my plate of leftover freezer-burned panic turkey and dumpling dinner rolls smothered in vegan gravy, thinking of how the wormhole had laid waste to my life.
On my quest to discover a “new normal” and find acceptance of the post-wormhole world, I tried what feels like a million different things with varying levels of success.
My family managed to master the art of socially-distancing with small children. We employed a wide array of toddler restraints, including strollers, car seats, windows, and fencing. We extended the ropes on our sleds so that my dad and his girlfriend could pull my kids around on a frozen lake while remaining 6 ft from them. And sometime around July, we started Sunday dinners 2.0, which involved dispersed picnicking with booster seats and masks, pizza, popsicles, BYO dishes and napkins and drinks, insect repellant, and a child’s potty tucked into the bushes.
We developed tricks to avoid our overly-friendly, inadequately-cautious neighbors: going on walks at sunrise or after sunset, waving hello only when inside a moving vehicle, and wearing masks as a preemptive, “Back off: We believe in wormholes,” sign. But sometimes, people wouldn’t get the hint. And then, with my dog and double stroller, I would talk to my neighbors and smile, and with every step they took towards me, I would take a step backwards. We would shuffle through a slow, socially-distanced and socially-awkward tango, with them leading me with the force of their intruding bodies on my invisible 6 ft bubble backwards down the street.
I’ve tried a boatload of new hobbies, including: canoeing, cooking, puzzles, adult coloring books, meditation, doom scrolling, becoming an armchair virologist, interior decorating (unsuccessful), organizing my house (unsuccessful), and cleaning my house semi-regularly so we aren’t wallowing continuously in our own filth (mostly-unsuccessful).
I took a foray into journaling, gratitude journaling, and food journaling, and I learned some things: 1. It is much better for my life to complain to my journal than to my husband. 2. I am grateful for the sunrise, my morning coffee, and the squirrel that runs back and forth on the power lines outside my living room window compulsively. 3. When I’m living in isolation with two small children and coming to terms with the fact that the entire world passed through a wormhole into an unknown alternate universe, I eat what I want, and that’s okay.
I tried meticulously recording the irrelevant things I do. I have color-coded checklists with 15 goals a day, including things like “do something fun” and “complete a chore.” That way, when I am feeling grouchy, I can read through the list and be like: “See, my life is good. I played Candyland 6 times this month, built 3 forts, had 7 video calls, and waved at a friendly shopper while picking up groceries twice.”
My favorite thing we tried was taking our 1-year-old and 3-year-old wilderness camping in the Boundary Waters, approximately 15 years earlier than originally planned.
Yes, it took 3 hours to get our food in a tree the first time, and we had to ask ourselves questions like: “Would dirty diapers attract bears? Should we hang them in the tree… with our food!?” Yes, our canoe weighted about 75 lbs, which was not great for portaging, especially when you add in the weight of 2 uncooperative children. Yes, my son was covered in maybe 40 leeches at one point after dipping his feet in the lake. And, yes, we used a latrine seat over a pit in the open forest: no walls, no ceiling, a mosquito free-for-all, and (I imagine) an interesting satellite view.
But miraculously, our trip was bear-free, and we enjoyed the many perks of the wilderness: glorious silence interrupted only by glorious loon calls; wildlife sightings; and many relaxed days of chilling in a hammock, slow-paced paddling, and naptime on the floor of the canoe.
I rang in 2021 spying on a large group of my friendly neighborhood tango partners celebrating around a bonfire outside my living room window. On my refrigerator were holiday cards depicting virus-shaped Christmas ornaments and a picture of a family shoving their faces full of bananas; they described 2020 as “a dumpster fire” and “bananas.” My feelings exactly.
I keep thinking I have achieved acceptance of the wormhole: that I’ve changed myself, my life, and my expectations for my life so that I’m good here now. And I have, in fact, managed to find some new hobbies and make some good memories. But then there are days when another family has the same idea as us and shows up at the playground at 6:30 in the morning, and we have to leave abruptly amid sleep-deprived tantrums and caffeine-deprived nerves. Or the vaxholes in my life start bragging, and I’m left wondering when I will possibly be able to get my high-risk kids made artificially immune. And then the news mentions the vaccines might not work against different variants and that vaccinated people could still get others sick, and I’m forced to wonder if this will last forever.
And then I laugh at myself for being so naïve as to believe that this wormhole hellhole marathon is “almost over.” (Denial? Again?!?! I thought I had finally accepted all this!)
We passed through a wormhole. There is no “over.” And if we magically pass through another wormhole, a reverse wormhole to the universe before 2020, and suddenly life goes “back to normal”? Well, I guess I’d rather just be pleasantly surprised.
But actual acceptance of the wormhole? I’m not there yet.