Skip to main content

On Being Quarantined

Virginia Woolf
Christiaan Tonnis, “Virginia Woolf” (detail) Oil on canvas, 1998. Wikimedia Commons
Katie wright

Katie Wright is a recent graduate of Boise State University’s English department where she earned her M.A. in literature. During her time at Boise State, her research focused on marrying psychoanalysis and contemporary animal studies—namely emphasizing the complicated nature of human-animal relations and the portrayal of those relations within Western culture and media. She is a former editor for the Badlands literary journal. Her fiction has been published in literary magazines across Southern California.

A Blogged Experience inspired by Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill

Post #1: “Quarantine Time… The Strange Notion of Time in Isolation”

April 8th, 2020

“We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the law, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky” (Woolf 12).

Quarantine days come and go in waves. No two are entirely alike but they come and go all the same, moving in and out in steady movements punctuated by an echoing thunder that seems, right now, to present mocking reminders that the next day will be yet another spoke in the turning wheel. The thunder quickly fades into the background, blends into the horizon of oddities that have become a new normal. Each day leaves a little excess as it ends, the white foam that clings to wet sand on a beach when the water recedes. The excess changes every day: a pile of dishes in the sink from the night before, an unfinished essay that needs to be done, the hair bun that’s been tied up since yesterday’s lunchtime cup of Dunkin Donuts Breakfast Blend, and four unread emails.

One would think that time alone would allow for unimpeded time to accomplish things. Gwyneth Paltrow offered up the invaluable, unsolicited advice to her seven million Instagram followers that time in social isolation provides a great opportunity to write a book or learn a language, instrument, and online coding. Such a helpful thing to suggest from the comforts of a $10 million mansion in Los Angeles, isn’t it? Praise be the multimillionaires for their advice. Afterall, what is time if not an allowance to accomplish something? But I digress.

An abundance of unimpeded time might exist in quarantine but the motivation to take hold of that time and use it for something, constructive or otherwise, does not. Time that moves in such a way, punctuated by the ticking of a clock and nothing else, doesn’t allow for it. There’re no markers, no milestones, no meaning. The challenge must be wrestling with the meaninglessness of a construct that no longer provides an infrastructure for a day in a life. Does the life itself no longer exist or is it the time which doesn’t exist? I suppose it doesn’t matter. We’re not free from time. Rather, we’re floating along, broken sticks on a stream that continues to move without our consent.

The sky is still here, though. Has anyone noticed it’s stayed the same in quarantine? But the idleness that might exist when one is ill and unable to leave their bed doesn’t exist here. There is always something that should be done or could be done. The time is there to stare at the sky, or the ceiling, and find patterns in the clouds or popcorn texture speckled along the drywall (I have found several in the last few hours- two llamas, a storm cloud, and a string of Christmas lights) but there isn’t time to enjoy it guilt-free. Time isn’t necessarily my own simply because I have an abundance of it. Maybe that’s the only difference between time in and out of isolation. Time outside of isolation, the time kept by alarms and clocks and appointments and obligations, cannot be ignored. That kind of time is a schedule which must be kept.

But time in isolation isn’t bound by the same pressures—that’s where the struggle lies. The pressure everyday life puts on someone is misappropriated as motivation. It’s the driving force which keeps us moving forward through the world, through our day, through time itself. Is this what happens to me without the motivating presence of constant, obvious pressure? Do I turn into a voided space?

Maybe a mind is no different than a body: one in motion stays in motion. Maybe to get through quarantine days, one must become like a bodysurfer; loose and open to the inertia of the waves but never drowning below the surface.

Works Cited
Woolf, Virginia. “On Being Ill.” Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2002. 3-28. Print.

Post #2: “10 Things One Notices in Social Isolation”

April 15th, 2020

  • There are four water damage rings on the ceiling of my bedroom. Two are the color of dark toast and they get increasingly lighter as they go, fading into the worn, off-white paint. It’s a color that isn’t beige, nor white, nor cream. It’s a dirtier blend of all three, really, and the rings seem to belong there. If this was an aesthetics post on Instagram, it’d be hashtagged with #GrungeLife.
  • When one is changing their pajamas as often as I am (there is only so much dog hair that I can take), there is an obscenely larger amount of laundry than there ever was when I was going out into the real world. Apparently when one can no longer switch between wearing the same pair of jeans and leggings every day for a week, laundry piles up quickly. Who knew living continuously in your living space equates to much more work in that living space? It was much easier to simply be a shadow moving in and out of my home, leaving behind only glimmers of a trace (a spare dish in the sink, a forgotten sock in the hall, fingerprints on the window). It was much less work existing rather than living.
  • Habits must still be formed in quarantine. I have found a schedule, as rudimentary and arbitrary as it may seem. It includes coffee in the morning, family socializing, (possibly) homework, (most definitely) a nap, play time with the dogs, ceiling-staring-with-occasional-pondering, and copious amounts of food. There is comfort in routine. Normal rests in routine.
  • My house has memories that I don’t. I can see indents on the walls that I was never a part of creating and stains on the carpet I don’t know the causes of. It remembers movements at night that I don’t recall making. I’ll settle into bed and hear the resettling of spots I stepped on the old staircase throughout the day. If it could talk, would it tell me that it knows me better than I know myself?
  • The dripping of a faucet can quickly turn into a musical beat if you let it. “Don’t worry…[drip] about a thing…[drip] ‘cause every little thing…[drip] is gonna be alright…[drip].” Why is it impossible to let silence just be silence?
  • When the only person you can sit with is yourself, you learn the cadence of your own inner voice quickly. It wasn’t that I never knew myself … I’d like to think I knew myself better than anyone, but it seems different now. I know what thoughts of mine to trust and which ones should be ignored for being blatant lies (“I really want to gorge myself on chocolate icing” vs. “I really want to relax and bake something,” for instance). It’s annoying being so in-tune with myself without the opportunity to break away, to distract myself. Is that the true test of all of this? How long can one sit with themselves until they’re forced to love them again?
  • The physical space I live in must say some interesting things about me; Albert Camus’ The Plague splayed open and upside down on the floor by my bed (“no bedside table … clearly she’s poor”), all four of The Golden Girls Pop!Funko figurines (“money waster”), a giant white board filled end to end with writing (“neurotic or brilliant?”), a dog grooming brush on the desk (“dog mom”), and a liquid-stitched rip on the bed’s comforter (“single”). Maybe the entire space reads as a hermit’s guide to being a functioning member of a graduate program.
  • When hummed enough to oneself, it becomes clear that there is a section of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for every part of the day:
    • Waking up (pre-coffee): “caught in a landslide, no escape from reality”
    • Waking up (post-coffee): “any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me”
    • Attempting to do any kind of school-related work: “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”
    • Mid-existential crisis (post-work attempt): “I don’t wanna die”
    • Getting work done: “I need no sympathy”
    • Afternoon lull (post-getting some work done): “Nothing really matters, anyone can see”
    • Staring out the window and zoning out: “I see a little silhouette of a man”
    • Having to go out to buy essential items: “Sends shivers down my spine”
    • Coming back from essential trips, convinced I have COVID-19 after I cough once: “Too late, my time has come”
    • Doing one at-home workout: “Body’s aching all the time”
    • Nighttime anxiety: “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me”
    • Nighttime anxiety (post-two glasses of wine): BISHMILLAH!
  • The sounds that come in from my bedroom window have become the new background noise. I don’t reach for the remote anymore to turn on old episodes of A&E’s Hoarders while I write. Instead, I lose myself in the sounds of birds, the rustling of leaves, and my dog barking at the squirrels who terrorize him in the yard. They’re simpler sounds but not quaint or nostalgic like 18th-century novels might suggest. It’s more complicated than that. It’s more nuanced… They’re signifiers of a life outside of four walls.
  • I am hesitant. For the first time in my life, presented opportunities no longer seem inviting. It’s not fear or even anxiety keeping me from taking chances, it’s the knowledge that taking a chance in today’s world comes with more unwanted possibilities.


Post #3: “She, Interrupted: Quarantine and I”

April 20th, 2020 

“We live in a world occupied by dead living things,” She says.

“The wood on the stairs is solid oak and streaked with a fresh coat of sealant and a stain to keep it ‘natural’ looking. It’s a strange thing. The manmade stairs, stain, and sealant all designed to look as reminiscent of the purest nature-made material as possible. It’s still dead though. It was once a living tree, roots firmly dug into soil, steadfast, strong, and solid. Now it no longer grows, just sits stagnant in a living space filled with fake fauna and flower-patterned fabrics.

“We bring the outside indoors and let it die for decoration. Perhaps we do the same for people. We keep ourselves indoors, we cultivate and grow into plush carpeting and cool-tone walls. This room is one of those rooms. I have rooted deep into this creaky mattress. I am comfortable in this room—the room carefully designed to express the me I have built. She is as meticulously constructed as those wooden stairs, painted and sealed to look natural. She’s steadfast, strong, and solid.

“I am one of them, aren’t I? She is a living dead thing. Quarantine has proven that she must be maintained with the same tools which preserve the stairs. She must be polished, reinforced, cleaned in order to do her job without a blemish. One cannot do her work with feeling. She cannot survive if she is alive.

“But those tools have disappeared here in isolation without the appraising looks others. She has been chipped at, flaked away like the old paint on the baseboards by the stairs. Who will she be when isolation is over?

“Who will I be if living dead cannot be maintained?”

Post #4: “Lions, Tigers, and Bears, oh my!: COVID-19 Dreams”

April 23rd, 2020

I am lying on my bed in the middle of the night, eyes wide open. I was sound asleep but the energy in the air woke me up. It’s the kind of sensation that is inexplicable. It can only be felt deep in the core of the place inside your body that reminds you you’re alive. Maybe it’s intuition. Maybe it’s something more primal than that. Whatever it is, I know something is fundamentally wrong in my space, in the room that I can navigate in pitch blackness with absolute certainty and steadfast steps.

I am sitting up now, astutely aware that there is something moving in my suddenly open closet. The temperature in my room has spiked; it’s sauna-thick humid sticking to my arms, the feeling of wet paper towels wrapped around every inch of my body. It’s suffocating but I can’t pay attention to it now; there is still something moving in my closet.

I see its tail first, long and rubbery, and then the rest of its body; a rat with wirey brown hair and dagger-like nails scampering around in my once-clean clothes. My mouth is open—I’m trying to scream. The sound is rising in my throat but won’t come out of my mouth. It’s stuck in a thick, rubbery coat on the inside of my esophagus; something is wrong there, but I can’t focus on that now. My attention is on the rat—no … the rats. There is more than one now, all exploding out from my closet with hitch pitched squeals. They’re multiplying before my eyes; I still cannot scream for help.

Now my feet are rooted to the floor, taken over by a tacky paste that it takes a minute to recognize; it’s not a paste, it’s a shifting mound of bugs. And they’re moving up—no, they’re burrowing into my legs. I can see where they have overtaken my feet and are sinking into the front of my shins, moving their way up my legs in a steady crawl. My skin, usually paled and freckled when healthy, looks unrecognizable now. It’s bubbling beneath the surface and then rotting into a holed pattern reminiscent of honeycomb.

The tiny bubbles beneath my skin have moved up now, overtaken my arms and my hands. There’s nothing I can do but stare as my flesh pebbles and then caves into clusters of deep, dark holes while the rats populate over and over again….

“The dreams were not confined to her indeed, but went from one brain to another” –Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out

TIME Magazine published an article titled “The Science Behind Your Weird Coronavirus Dreams (and Nightmares)” back in April to bring awareness to the widespread phenomenon of people suddenly having vivid and intense dreams about similar subjects since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine protocols. They note that this is not an unprecedented event. After moments of monumental tragedy on a nation or worldwide scale such as the 9/11 attacks in New York, people have reported similar dream experiences. National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and The New York Times have all published similar articles, discussing the nature of dreams during periods of high anxiety and stress and why people seemingly have the same kinds of nightmarish dreams during those periods.

The most common dreams that have been reported over the last two-month period of isolation have been dreams and nightmares involving dangers (abstract or otherwise), potential hazards, bugs, disease/illness, disasters, and death. Caity Weaver for The New York Times reported an influx of dreams about tidal waves, monsters, invisible attacks (by something like poison gas) while Rebecca Renner, in her article for National Geographic, noted the influx of dreams of zombies, bugs, and shadowy figures. Christina Pierpaoli Parker for CNBC’s health and wellness column echoes the sentiment of neurologists, writing that the brain likes order so during times of intensified fear and anxiety, the brain attempts to process its own concerns (or make sense of its new chaotic normal) during sleep. Basically, the lingering concern for COVID-19 and what it means for us on an individual and global scale is following us into our dreams simply because our brains do not know what to do with this kind of stress.

It’s easy to believe that Virginia Woolf would have found this period of paralleled dreams utterly fascinating. Much of Woolf’s fiction presented a strong awareness for the world of dreams. Looking just at a novel like The Voyage Out, dreams frame Woolf’s characters and their stories through nearly every chapter. Her characters daydream, fall asleep and dream, and often escape the realities of the world by entering into dream-like trances of rumination. In the final chapters of the novel, Rachel Vinrace’s unconscious mind is explored through her dream patterns during her illness and subsequent death. Woolf’s embrace of a multi-layered self which existed in both the real world and the world of dreams seems entrenched in a similar kind of psychoanalysis that dream-interested psychiatrists use today.

As for us, the ones who are neither psychiatrists nor Woolfian novelists, we simply see the dreams as what they are in the moment. We live through the disease, the vermin, the fear and anxiety on a nightly basis, only hoping to wake up in a peaceful place again. But the world is not peaceful now, nor has it ever been. It’s easy to believe that maybe we’re all much more in tune with each other and the fabric of existence we all share than we ever thought we were; that there is a gentle, low frequency hum running through us all that we are all dialed into which leads to a Jungian-type of shared experience.

I think that, perhaps, it’s more complicated than that. Maybe it is not the shared experience of living in the same world that unites us in a shared dream, like leaves all growing on one branch. Rather, it’s the primal recognition of the illness experience. Woolf touches on that very thing in “On Being Ill,” suggesting that illness warrants very specific responses from people, often involving their memories of their own illnesses as a response to the ailments of others. I think something similar is being evoked here. It’s not just that we all have human brains which are wired in similar ways, it’s that the essence of illness and the stress it causes illuminates a deeply human response that registers in similar ways within our minds. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is the universal experience is not life itself, but the emotions and anxieties surrounding illness, especially illness on a worldwide scale. We may not all be experiencing COVID-19 in the same ways; we may not be suffering because of it or even greatly affected by it, but the anxieties it causes still resonate within us, within our bodies, and deep in the recesses of our minds.

Woolf understood that dreams are very much another world within us that we are not privy to entirely, but that we glimpse into them when we sleep. If the pandemic is causing us all to experience a very similar internal world (that is then causing similar, vivid dreams), how does that map onto our real world? What does it illuminate about us as connected beings? I would not attempt to guess what Woolf would say to those questions. However, I would attempt to answer it myself in a way that she might appreciate: perhaps it illuminates nothing.

Facing a similar situation and internalizing the fallout of it in our hours of sleep does not equate to authentically understanding one another and each other’s state-of-being. Sharing similarities does not make us the same, even if that similarity is something as deeply personal as the world we have within ourselves. Maybe it just makes us recognize the looks in one another’s eyes as we peer at each other from six feet away, half hidden behind face masks; we recognize that there could be a true connection made there… even if we never attempt to make one.

Post #5: “Let Me Live”

April 28th, 2020

“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.

Human beings nowadays seem determined to make meaning out of their lives. We’ve all heard the cliché “everything happens for a reason,” haven’t we? We’ve all cracked open a fortune cookie from our favorite Chinese restaurant and chuckled reading the little blurbs on the white strips of paper: “all will come to you in time,” “a pleasant surprise is waiting for you,” “you will be given a new and exciting project.” They may not be real or indicate anything truly authentic about one’s life but we read meaning into them all the same: “I’ll meet the partner of my dreams soon,” “I might ace the test I thought I failed,” “maybe I’ll get the promotion at work.”

The same mindset is applied to the start of a new year. We think of resolutions to start our new year, believing the difference between December 31st and January 1st is an entire lifetime. It’s a chance to start “fresh” with a new attitude and goals. Suddenly a new year has new meaning that the previous year lacked.

COVID-19’s self-isolation has become another fortune cookie, another new year. There is meaning to be had… some kind of purpose to be made.

Pamela Savino for published a column towards the beginning of the mandatory stay-at-home order titled “5 Ways Quarantine Can Unlock Your Life Purpose.” In the column, she suggests that every human has the potential to uncover their unique talents and “gifts” if they use the time in isolation to discover them and then share them with the world once they’re able. She, the author of Live Authentically, suggests that right now, people are like coal under pressure. And when coal is put under enough pressure, it becomes a diamond. “You’re a diamond in the making,” she says.

No, Pamela. Maybe I am simply trash.

Savino falls into a laundry list of individuals attempting to create a meaningful purpose for our current situation. Why? Why is it that everything must have a purpose? Why is it that every experience in life must equate to a higher meaning? It must be possible that the events of the everyday experience may not mean anything on a deep level.

Maybe it has something to do with the world we live in. It’s a fact of the 21st century that the majority of the developed, Westernized world lives their lives on the internet. It’s a weird way to reaffirm their sense of reality, I think. By showing a life through online posts and pictures and receiving feedback for it (likes, comments, etc.), the life is therefore real and meaningful.

The vast majority of those who had already lived their lives through the internet are still doing that. But the lives they post on are shockingly different now, in May 2020, than they were in January 2020. Instagram posts have moved from pictures of world travel and hashtags about “wanderlust” to images of dogs taking over makeshift home offices with the hashtag #QuarantineLife. There is still an influx of pictures of food, but rather than fancy, filtered dinners from popular restaurants, the images are now of pantry-salvaged homemade meals. The change has created a second life in itself, marking the existence of someone going through self-isolation and social distancing as its own new kind of reality. Posting about it creates a sense of comradery, I suppose, but I think it comes from a place of still needing the affirming reassurance that life is being lived.

The fact is that not every meal I eat is going to be life-changing, not every outing is going to be marked down as incredible, and not every experience will be memorable—why should it be that way in quarantine? Why must I find the meaning in the experience … is it not enough to simply get through it? To live? Perhaps the meaning that can be found in quarantine is that not everything needs to signify purpose and that the meaning of life can just be living minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day.

I’m sorry, Pamela Savino. Let me recommend you a few books that might prove my point better. See: the life’s work of Virginia Woolf, specifically Mrs. Dalloway.

Blog where all of these posts can be found (and more!)

Connected Instagram with more responses to COVID-19 isolation

Note: This article is part of The Blue Review’s Coronavirus Conversations, a special series on the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

The vision of the School of Public Service includes empowering students to “become innovative and responsive public service leaders within local, state, national, and global communities.” With this vision in mind, the Blue Review occasionally publishes work, such as this article, by Boise State students and recent graduates.