VOICES

A pile of forgotten shoes snapped me back to pre-COVID reality. But the aftershocks won't stop.

A couple of months ago, I would have said COVID didn't change my life much. Now I know better. We've all changed in ways we didn't notice or predict.

Jill Lawrence
USA TODAY
The stash of forgotten shoes

Among the strangest things so far about the COVID-19 emergence era is realizing I had no memory of an entire season of clothing – specifically, footwear.

This did not become clear until two weeks ago. It was the second time we were meeting vaccinated friends at an actual restaurant and I decided to visit the attic to check out my shoe options. What I found was a plastic garment bag stuffed with 10 pairs of black sandals.

Ten pairs? you might well ask. I hate to shop. I had found a couple of comfortable brands and had stocked up via the internet with the intention of never having to buy shoes again. I’d say don’t judge me, but I’ve already been through a Facebook judging session. Some friends found all of this hilarious. Others brought the snark. You're certainly ready for some warm-weather funerals, one said.

A sister-in-law posted an emoji of a red spike heel. Message: Toss them. Then there was the elementary school friend who, as fate would have it, became a shoe designer based in Florence, Italy. She was puzzled by the pile of unworn shoes: Why were they inappropriate COVID choices?

Changed in ways we couldn't predict

The point is, I had not given them a thought. I wore the same pair of shoes and the same handful of shirts for 18 months. Rotate seasonal clothing? It never occurred to me. There were days on end when I did not go outside – did not have any idea what the weather or temperature was, to be honest.

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox

And yet, if you had asked me a couple of months ago, I would have said nothing much changed for me in the COVID era. I saw movies and ate restaurant food, just at home. I was working, just from home, and was lucky enough to keep getting paid. 

We even figured out a way to socialize with a few very close friends – two at a time, pairs huddled outdoors 8 feet apart on our long front porch, or at either end of our  kitchen table (6 ½ feet long including leaf), screened doors and windows open on three sides to approximate a well-ventilated outdoor environment. We did it in spring, summer and fall, sometimes with an air conditioner blasting, sometimes with a little space heater cranked up.

The well-ventilated extra-long COVID-19 table for four.

For adventure, we went grocery shopping. Masked and distanced and hand-sanitized, yes, but not sick. Not homebound. Not struggling to educate school-age children, since ours are grown. Not obsessively worried, especially after vaccines kicked in.

We were so fortunate in so many ways. It seemed like normal life.

But then real normal began to reappear, and with it the gradual recognition that after the lockdowns and quarantines and social isolation, the constant undercurrent of fear, the shadow of sickness and death so much darker than before, things had not in fact been normal. And that we were changed in ways we had not noticed or predicted.  

Sandberg & Boissy:COVID-19 legacy can be more than stress. Post-traumatic growth is real 

In January 2020 we had four friends over to watch “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” on our TV. I thought it was the beginning of the end of movie outings. As the COVID months of streaming and bingeing wore on, I would have told you I’d never return to a theater.

But last month, five minutes into “In the Heights,” I said, “This would be a lot better in a theater.” We turned it off and went to see it a few days later at the historic neighborhood cinema. And I understood that I had missed theaters, and the group movie experience with fellow humans, and would indeed be going back.

I hadn’t worn those shoes in the attic since 2019. Did I miss them? Did I miss the clothes I used to wear for different seasons? No. Did I miss earrings, makeup and dressing up? No.

COVID aftershocks large and small

But did I miss my colleagues? Tremendously. And after nearly 18 months of sometimes confusing, sometimes contentious conversations via email or Teams or IMs or DMs, I admit: I miss in-person collaboration, jokes and hugs. Even despite the need for makeup, earrings, a decent outfit appropriate for the season, and a commute that sometimes requires 45 minutes to travel 11 miles.

Let's be better than normal:We’ve survived the worst year of our lives. Let’s not lose our minds over a hot dog.

These are the small pandemic aftershocks. But now, more and more, come the earth-shaking ones: The jobs people can never go back to, or can never imagine going back to. The stalled millennial careers that may never take off. The relationships that didn’t survive close COVID quarters. The relationships that worked perfectly in those conditions, and then imploded upon reengagement with the larger world. The distance from family that once was simply the way things were, but now, after so much separation, seems vast and unacceptable.

The shoes themselves are insignificant, but what they say about the COVID memory hole is profound. An entire disappeared life (and wardrobe) rushed back the instant I saw them. I'm braced now for more moments like that one, and for larger reckonings as well. 

What will we remember, and what will we forget, and what will we learn, from so many months in a suspended reality? Once I might have scoffed and said nothing. Now I know better.

Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence