A New Normal by Alaura Robinson

Digging Deeper

Kristina and Marcus Ratcliff begin creating a new garden. They were redesigning their front yard during their time in quarantine. Friday, April 17, 2020. (Photo by Alaura Robinson)

The beginning of my time in quarantine felt like a recovery period. The first couple of weeks after moving back home, I was licking my wounds and mourning my losses. My grieving made it difficult to understand the true beauty of having this time with my loved ones. This week, I’m digging a little deeper.

I have grown up in the same house since I was five years old and spent years making memories within its walls. Now, I’m helping my family renovate them. This quarantine has been full of replacing old sinks and rusty door knobs. I have quickly watched dents from rough-housing disappear beneath caulk and years of memories fade away underneath a new coat of paint. Most recently, we started a garden.

My family and I spent hours working in dirt left unplanted for the last decade. We redesigned the beds and laid down the new stones, all the while joking and laughing together until the sun set on the land behind us. It has been quite some time since I’ve been able to make these kinds of precious new memories with them, and it is a privilege I will treasure during the rest of my time quarantined with them. 

Kristina Ratcliff scoops meat from a pan into waiting tortillas. She was cooking dinner for her family, a part of their routine which helped maintain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. Tuesday, April 7, 2020 (Photo by Alaura Robinson)

I wake up at 8 a.m. I log in for work. I put in my hours of labor and end the day at 4:30. I do my homework and chores. I shower. I read, watch TV, and fall asleep. With slight variations, these tasks are the summation of my new normal.

Amidst the monotony of my life during the pandemic, I can’t help but reflect on the absurdity of it all. One day I was a student a few months from graduation, the next I’ve moved home and am unable to have a family dinner at a Chili’s. The seriousness of the situation does not escape me; however, it’s absurdity allows me to cope: I remind myself that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sisyphus is known as the man condemned by the gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, wherein he pauses at its summit only to watch the boulder make its descent. He then follows it to the bottom, thus beginning the process once more. This continues for all of eternity.

To some, his punishment may appear horrific: who could imagine such a prisoner sane, much less happy? Albert Camus; however, describes the myth of Sisyphus as one of victory rather than despair. 

He notes that although Sisyphus is condemned to an eternal punishment, he is still the master of his own fate and thoughts. Thus, he triumphs over his punishment. He has equal power to feel despair as he does happiness.

Marcus Ratcliff sands down patches of spackling. He was repairing blemishes to the bathroom wall as part of his renovation project. Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Photo by Alaura Robinson)

I remember Sisyphus during these unexpected adjustments. We are all required to stay home, yet there is joy to be found in our collective new normal–be it logging on to virtual class meetings, working on endless house projects or cooking dinner for the family. 

Although we may not have control over much during this pandemic, we remain autonomous over our thoughts. In the midst of our monotony, one must imagine us happy.

Ramona Grove holds her father’s hand as he lay in bed. She wore gloves as instructed by the care facility in response to COVID-19. (Photo by Alaura Robinson)

March 27, 2020

Today I said goodbye to my great-grandfather. 

My mother, grandmother and I stood outside of the residential care facility after calling to let the caretaker know we had arrived. Moments later, a woman appeared at the door with three sets of masks and gloves. We put them on in silence before entering the house and walking back to my great-grandfather’s room. The new procedures were in place to protect the residents from the coronavirus, and I felt hesitant entering despite my mask, gloves, and hand sanitizer.

Papa was lying in his bed, his usual spot during our visits for the past several months. A man of 89 years, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and slowly slipped from our shared reality into his own as our visits continued. 

My heart clenched in my chest as I watched my mother and grandmother tell him that it was okay to let go; we were strong enough to take care of each other, and he had made sure of it. 

My grandmother squeezed her gloved hand around his and told him that his wife was waiting for him. His son, Tommy, who died at the age of 18. I felt tears soak into the mask I was wearing to separate my air from his. 

Papa had a distant look in his eyes, as if he were trapped between here and somewhere far away, inaccessible to us. He could not speak; even still, I felt the pressure of his hand squeeze mine and felt that there was an understanding between us. 

March 29, 2020

Walter Scott Coffey passed away the afternoon of March 29, 2020. In the midst of our grieving, there are other considerations to keep in mind: How will we plan a funeral? How will we honor him? Large gatherings are not permissible, and even funerals are limited to 10 individuals or less.

Regardless of the unforeseen obstacles surrounding his death, we will celebrate his life and carry on his memory.

I was at my friend Abby’s house when I heard: “The coronavirus is officially a pandemic. Experts advise keeping two weeks of food in the household at all times.” Tennessee hadn’t had a case yet, and we both kind-of brushed it off with a nervous laugh, unpaused our show, and continued about our day.

A week later, I was no longer laughing. 

The virus had shut down countries and was rapidly working its way through the U.S. Its most recent conquest was a Hamilton county resident. My home.

March 21, 2020

Moving boxes sit atop Alaura Robinson’s childhood bed in Madison, TN. They were everything she had to show for her three years at The University of Tennessee: Chattanooga. Saturday, March 21, 2020. (Photo by Alaura Robinson)

In a state of shock, I watched as my college was shut down, work moved online, and my entire senior year was effectively reduced to a monitor screen, mouse and keyboard. After spring break, my focus was not catching up with classmates over coffee or continuing group projects. Instead, many faces I’d never had the opportunity to say goodbye to would remain lost to me as I packed my belongings for my abrupt transition to Nashville. 

Over the span of four days, I condensed my college experience into medium-sized Home Depot boxes and finished them off with strips of packing tape. On the fourth day, my family helped me load our two vehicles and make the journey back to my childhood home. As we drove through the mountains for what inexplicably felt like the last time, the weight of grief settled on my chest. 

March 23, 2020

I have been back in Nashville for less than a week, and the adjustments remain surreal. Even still, I’m embracing the small moments all around me: my 18-year-old brother has his first “serious” girlfriend, my mother is redesigning my childhood home, and I’m constantly working on some sort of project with my dad. Investing in these moments and capturing them with a camera helps me realize that, even amidst the current chaos, there is happiness.

Meet the Storyteller

Alaura Robinson is a senior Communication major with a minor in Spanish. She is a staff photographer for the University Echo and pursues photojournalism both inside and outside of the classroom. Post-graduation, she aspires to earn her J.D. concentrating in copyright law. View more of her work on Instagram @alaurabri or contact her at zkr985@mocs.utc.edu.

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