Making investments during a pandemic

We’re told from early on that we need to invest in our future. Keep a balanced portfolio. Plan, wait, have a vision. Education, piggy banks, keeping our knees closed. The best is yet to come.

Selling a house and taking your kid on the road for a year is not on that list.

It was a scary, bold decision back in 2010, when I took Corin, my fifth-grade son, out of public school to hit the road with backpacks. Right now, it feels like the best thing we could have done for our future. Traveling freely to dozens of countries, mingling with all of humanity in Shanghai, eating from street carts in Vietnam, riding in crowded minivans in Ghana, walking the night markets of Thailand — it all seem like fantasies now.

Even then, I had packed a box of face masks. When we left Alaska, the global fear of remnants of H1N1 lingered, unresolved. I wanted to be prepared to protect us. We barely opened my Tupperware medicine kit stocked with essentials from anti-diarrheals to antibiotics, pain medication, antiseptic ointments and Band-Aids. We each had but one brief bout of illness: a cold for Corin in damp, chilly Scotland, a three-day fever for me in Malaysia. The salves and pills are now 10 years old, expired and useless.

Except for the masks.

We made it all those miles without even cracking the seal on that box of 10 masks until March of 2020.

Today my adult son, abruptly returned from college on the East Coast, hibernates in his bedroom, taking college classes online by day and dating by Zoom at night. We stumble through the unexpected closeness we both treasure — and resent. I had healed from the pang of sending him off to school and facing an empty home nest. He had been making all his own decisions for nearly two years. Now there is bathroom clutter, kitchen messes, arguments about housecleaning and internet consumption, the definition of quiet hours, when and what to eat or drink.

But we’re also having long conversations about all that’s happening around us. Local and global politics, book banning, crazy conspiracy theories, the inner struggles of those close to us whom we love and care about, how we can support our community, philosophy, how to move forward when all our dreams are on hold. I had hoped to sell our home, walk the Camino de Santiago, and start to pursue my own dream of building a tiny house with a spectacular view. He was accepted at a summer program in Cambridge, England. He was over the moon with hallucinations of a glorious future.

When I called and asked him to come be safe at home, he was on spring break with seven friends having the time of his life. I wept when he said he’d rather stay with them. Then his school sent them all packing and he had to come anyway. The wipe-down at the airport and back at the house is a memory we’ll not forget. It was after midnight and he had endured a 4,882 mile journey, facing masked people and disinfectant and fear every mile of the way, shared by texted updates. He shed his travel wear in the garage and ran up to shower while I put all his clothing into a hot wash cycle. We could finally hug, and by then we were ready to.

Now his rich baritone voice booms from the bathroom shower every day. When the windows are cracked, we can hear hundreds of birds in many different voices, because their song is no longer dampened by the sounds of traffic. We trade little treats with our neighbors like cupcakes and fresh sweet shrimp in surprise packages announced with texts and punched doorbells. There are containers of Clorox wipes at the door, in the car.

We migrate the world, virtually, in bathrobes, often from the couch.

We walk together when school and peers allow. He works out religiously now, having created dumbbells with socks tying light weights to a body bar. I am enjoying the luxury of yoga six days a week, and stepping away more miles than ever before. We have healthy, bountiful Alaska food in our home, and no junk as we work to use this time to achieve maximum health. Optimal health is the one investment that will not be vulnerable to other people’s choices.

Each day, I pick more things to organize, toss, sell and otherwise discard, not willing to surrender any dreams to a virus. Our extended family is communicating better thanks to the internet. I admit to having stolen a cocktail in our condo’s common area — 10 feet apart, of course, slipping my mask aside for sips. Daily walks in the woods nourish my sagging soul with the reliability of spring unfolding on schedule. Nature has become my touchstone.

This week, Corin will finish the last papers of his sophomore year. The uncertain summer yawns before us. Our AirBnB is dismantled for need of space and lack of bookings. My Ravn Air tickets rest in the recycling pile. Meaningful work projects are on hold. Unemployment, even if it comes through, won’t be quite enough. Precious emergency artist grants dangle in the wind. Our expenses are trimmed to the bare bones — food and shelter. Can we make it work?

Will there be school next year?

Who buys a house during a pandemic?

Yet our real investments — travels of the past, bonus mother-son bonding, wellness of today — continue to serve us.

We choose this as our takeaway.

Mary Katzke is executive director of Affinityfilms Inc., a nonprofit filmmaking enterprise that focuses on social issues and has been based in Anchorage since 1982.

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