“Every piano lesson starts with hand sanitizer and ‘What’s new?’” a young precocious student once told her mother in an innocent world Before Coronavirus. “What is ‘What’s new?’” the mother asked. “You know. When you tell Miss Amy all the new things that happened.”

That conversation only proves I am totally predictable. Back in the day when kids came racing through the sunroom, slamming the screen door behind them, I did indeed start every lesson with the greeting, “Hey kid. What’s new?” our weekly call and response that began our work together. No doubt, some kids were annoyed by the question. Others viewed it as a sort of I Spy. “I think you moved that plant!” they’d say, eager to get the answer right.

Still others came prepared. Before I could even open my mouth, they’d start talking, “So, what’s new is this week I started swimming. I used to do gymnastics on Tuesdays and piano on Wednesdays, but this year I have piano on Mondays and swimming on Thursdays, but no gymnastics.” The child paused, thoughtful. “I don’t know why I’m not doing gymnastics anymore.”

I wouldn’t dare to ask anyone “What’s new?” today, not wanting to remind any of us that nothing is new in these monotone days. Instead, I begin every single online lesson in a different, but equally predictable, way. “What did you do today?” I ask. This is never an idle question, random chit-chat. I am always curious both about how we spend our time and how we talk about it. During lockdown, I hear a lot of “Nothing. Just hanging out.” This answer always puzzles me. What does “hanging out” look like? Napping? Playing video games? Reading? Staring out the window? What is “nothing?”

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about our tendency to abbreviate and condense time and experiences, particularly seemingly trivial ones. “Artistic accounts involve abbreviations of what reality will force upon us,” he writes. “A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X…But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside…At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon’.”

I found myself remembering this passage in January on the day we spent journeying from Budapest to Venice via Vienna on train. Leaving Budapest around 7am, it was a two-hour trip to Vienna on a crowded train, then an hour wait in the Vienna train station before an eight-hour trip to Venice. But of course that last sweeping sentence doesn’t at all describe the day which had its hours and minutes and beautiful moments. There was the cappuccino drunk near the Budapest train station in a bakery before the journey began. There were the hours spent reading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, which chronicles Isabel Archer’s own travels through Europe. There were the laps walked around the Vienna train station, trying to stretch our legs between trains. There were the snowy mountain villages in Austria with their brightly colored houses and high steepled churches. During the last few hours, we watched the full moon rising over the snow-covered Alps. And finally, around eight o’clock, we pulled into Venice. Magical.

Life becomes precious in the details. It is too easy to gloss over the moments in favor of sweeping generalities (We spent a month in Europe…We spent twelve hours traveling from Budapest to Venice…) but the magic is always in the attention to the process, the practice, the details. It is never “nothing.” How did we get from Budapest to Venice?

This week when I instructed the tow-headed eight-year-old across FaceTime to write the date in his practice notebook he wailed, “How can it be June 30 already? The days go by so slow, but the months go by so fast.” Then he told me he lost his LEGO privileges by fighting with his brother. It strikes me that this is the definition of quarantine: The days go by so slow, the months go by so fast. And we have lost our LEGO privileges.

Lately, as time seems to shrink and expand like a crazy mirror in a haunted house, I have been thinking a great deal about our tendency towards sweeping generalities around time. We have now spent three and a half months in some level of shut down. We have seen spring break, Passover and Easter come and go. Ramadan, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Flag Day and now the Fourth of July. Although the world is beginning to emerge from its cocoon, day-to-day life in our little corner remains virtually the same: I am still teaching online, warily watching the virus numbers rise. Weekly church services for Matt consist of Saturday night drive-ins and Sunday morning Livestreams. Talk of real actual live services is just talk, circling around the implications and risks. We exist in a bubble of two, social distancing from everyone including my family during our weekly dinners outside in the courtyard. I have not given my mother a hug in three and a half months. It breaks my heart. We are in a holding pattern, waiting.

I’m tired of talking about coronavirus, weary of the endless conversations about what states are complying with mask-wearing ordinances and which are not, exhausted from the constant planning every trip out in the world requires these days. (Do I have a mask? Hand sanitizer? Did I sign my release form so I could swim laps at the pool? Do I have canvas bags so I don’t have to use a shopping cart at the grocery store?) I have a full-blown case of Quarantine Fatigue.

But we have such a limited notion of time. We are quick to become impatient with minor inconveniences. We too readily forget that we are not the first people to walk through pandemics, or wars, or crises, or depressions, or a world that seems to have been put on pause. These are not unprecedented times in history. They are simply unprecedented in our short, small lifetimes.

I find myself thinking about history a great deal right now and with a somewhat new understanding and perspective. Suddenly, Anne Frank’s years spent in the attic take on weight and meaning. I have a deeper insight into the tension between boredom and anxiety. I have more sympathy for the pain and longing inside stories about men who go off to war, leaving behind women pregnant with their unborn children. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. For several years, Georgia O’Keeffe painted almost nothing. The London Blitz lasted for 57 days. People endure long illnesses that leave them bedridden for months staring hopelessly at the ceiling. When I think about parents with severely handicapped children, and what heroic efforts it takes to manage the simplest logistics of travel or daily life, I am shamed never to complain about face masks and Clorox wipes again.

Recently I heard someone smart say that introverts in general were faring better than extraverts during this time of isolation. It makes sense, but I’d add an asterisk to that theory. Introverts with projects, introverts who can entertain themselves, introverts who are mindful about how they spend their time and organize their days are doing far better for sure. But in an empty day, a week wiped clean of interests and activities, introverts are no more skilled than our more social friends. Restlessness — and its evil twin, depression — can befall anyone.

How did we get from Budapest to Venice? How did we get from March 13th to July 5th? I think one antidote to the generalized anxiety and ennui of this time is to claim the details of the journey: the snow on the Alps, the hours lost in a good book, the social-distanced glass of wine and rich conversation in the backyard with our quarantined partner. We lose so much understanding and perspective in abbreviation. I have always read that Anne Frank’s family spent two years in hiding, and later nodded matter-of-factly: “Yeah, long time.” But now the scales have fallen from my eyes. Two. Years. I cannot wrap my head around it.

We must take the long view, friends. This too will pass and become a footnote in history. Someday, we will be back to swimming on Thursdays and, who knows, maybe even gymnastics on Wednesdays. If we are lucky, we may earn back our LEGO privileges. In the meantime, wash your hands. Wear a face mask. Be safe and well.