Define “Essential”

My friends and I have a new game. It’s called “How the world will be different when the pandemic is over.” HTWWBDWTPIO for short. Don’t worry, you have plenty of time to learn the acronym before TPIO. The rules are you have to guess HTWWBDWTPIO. In other words, what things are we learning that you think will stick. You know, like how children of the depression learned to save used tinfoil.

I’ve spent the last six years writing a novel called THE PUZZLEMAKER, and the journey has turned me into a puzzlemaker. Hell, I’m practically an engineer by now. I’ve learned how to analyze things as if I am solving a puzzle. So here are two hints to HTWWBDWTPIO: What do you need most during self-isolation? And what do you miss most? Generic answer: the essentials. So who gets to define that?

I live in Iowa, one of five remaining states that does not yet have a mandatory shelter in place order. That’s because Iowa’s governor’s campaigns are funded by the large corporations that want to keep doing business. But that’s not my point. Even here in Iowa, it is “recommended” that we do not leave our homes except for “essential” trips. The state of Iowa defines essential as those necessary for food, medicine, or work. Work is defined as jobs essential for public health, safety, and food, and also apparently assembling John Deere lawn mowers (see above comment on Iowa corporations with powerful lobbies). Most of our offices and stores have been closed for weeks now except for grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, and restaurants that do carry-out orders. Other than that, we are asked to stay home. And most people are, thank goodness.

So Maslow was right. Food, shelter, and clothing are the base level of his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. In today’s world we would add prescription drugs to that list and edit clothing to mean sweatpants and pjs. As for shelter … my heart breaks for the homeless, or those with heavy mortgage or rent obligations, or maybe the worst situation of all: sheltering in a place where a person doesn’t feel safe. I worry for those who suffer physical, sexual, or mental abuse in their homes and now have added stress and no time apart. Less extreme but still worrisome, is how this quarantine will affect couples who were struggling before this. Will they rediscover the love they lost over the past few months or years? Or will there be countless divorces and breakups the minute one of them can leave the house again and hire movers? Let’s hope for love. And an end to homelessness.

There are countless jokes and memes blanketing our social media feeds these days about how fat we are all going to be when this is over due to lack of movement and too much Netflix bingeing. Remember this: When you’re going through a hard time, you don’t “deserve” Twinkies and potato chips, you deserve fresh, healthy food to help your body fight the vicious virus that has changed our world. You deserve antioxidants and vitamins that will recharge you and keep your skin clear. If you live in a place that has grocery delivery, order spinach and fresh berries!

WHAT YOU MISS MOST is the second clue to HTWWBDWTPIO. Family. Friends. Work. Exercise. Freedom. For me, it’s definitely family. The first thing I will do is hug my little granddaughter until she squirms for mercy. She’s too young to know what’s happening, but my greatest sadness is not being able to hear her infectious laugh or marvel at her newest accomplishment. I’ll eat her up I love her so. I’ve even heard rumor that people will stop complaining about work. All those who begged for more time at home to do projects or rest … They’ll be grateful to earn a paycheck again when this is over. People need a purpose. And community.

My hubby thinks there will be a new baby boom, and that people will be wary of traveling. I think—I’d like to think—people will become more caring and aware of others, those who can’t help themselves. I think we will be grateful for job opportunities, waitstaff and delivery people, and most of all healthcare workers and first responders. People will appreciate nature and books and cooking more than ever before. And exercise. Also healthcare for all would be nice.

Ultimately, we will all, individually, come out of this with a sharper sense of priorities. We will stop taking things for granted. We will learn to stop saying “one day,” because there are no guarantees about tomorrow. Now is your chance to work your way up Maslow’s pyramid. While you’re contemplating HTWWBDWTPIO, you have time for self-love and creative expression, time to work on what you deem essential, and time to practice altruism, the apex of life.

So join in. H(doyouthink)TWWBDWTPIO?

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