“Then put your little hand in mine…there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb…Babe, I got you babe…I got you babe…”
As the black alarm clock on the white doily flipped to 6:00 A.M., Sonny and Cher awakened Phil from his slumber in his room at the Cherry Tree Inn. It was February second, Groundhog Day, and haughty weatherman Phil Connors was on assignment in Gobbler’s Knob. A blizzard hitting the area prevented him from leaving Punxsutawney after his annual broadcast. So there he remained for the day and night. And more nights than he ever expected.
The following morning, when the alarm sounded at 6 A.M., the same lyrics from “I Got You, Babe” coming from the clock-radio created a déja vu for sleepy Phil as he stumbled to the bathroom. He raised an eyebrow. When the deejay shouted “Okay campers! Rise and shine! Don’t forget your booties because it’s cooooold out there today!” Phil stopped in his tracks. Something very odd was happening. Why would the deejay repeat the same phrase from the day before?
Upon parting the drapes, Phil’s eyes widened as he gazed upon the same people walking down the street dressed in the same garb from the day before. Bill Murray as Phil Connors finds himself trapped in a Groundhog Day time loop in this allegorical film from 1993. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can do to release himself from the oppressive, repetitive world in which he is an involuntary prisoner.
Being stuck at home because of covid-19 created a time-loop-like experience for humankind almost a year ago. Monday, March 9, 2020, began our nonfictional version of a Phil Connors Groundhog-Day-like time loop. At the time, we didn’t really know we’d be caught in a relentless covid“trap.” Didn’t know that eleven months later we’d still be seeing sky-high coronavirus statistics on TV and social media. That we’d be wearing face coverings when out in public. That social distancing would rule how we interact.
In March, we didn’t think classrooms would become tombs for dusty, lifeless desks. A temporary school closure turned into widespread shutdowns. Parents everywhere scrambled to figure out how to juggle work and school Zoom meetings for their kids. Children in special education felt a particular sting as their daily, familiar routines were upended and service came to a screeching halt. They are still suffering mightily. Life as we all knew it ceased to exist, as it did for Phil.
Some jokingly pointed to the convergence of daylight saving time, a full moon, and Friday the 13th as the “reason” for the insanity. Some portal somewhere had been opened and 2020 got sucked in.
The first casualty in our household due to covid’s rampage was a trip to Phoenix. Family from different parts of the country were meeting in the Valley of the Sun, and all sorts of fun things had been planned. When a local news station announced the dire situation in Maricopa County, there went the trip.
Like everyone else, we assumed that canceling our travel plans for the spring meant we’d simply travel in the summer. Viruses don’t like heat was the word on the street. By summer, this would all be over.
It was somewhere around April Fool’s Day when certain prominent people in the White House announced that our country, basically locked down for a month already, would be “out of this” by Easter. Easter was the target date. We were hoping that upon waking up Sunday morning, April 12th, we’d no longer hear “Sonny and Cher” on the “radio.”
But Easter came and went, and so did Orthodox Easter the following week, and May Day the week after that, and Mother’s Day about a week after that. Memorial Day weekend was looking like it offered some hope for a return to normal life. But alas, our own private version of “Okay campers! Rise and shine! Don’t forget your booties because it’s cooooold out there today” was still intruding on our mornings. Every day was becoming Blursday.
Haircuts were not happening. Toilet paper was not to be found. Baking items disappeared from markets as fast as they were restocked. On the bright side, our long, daily walks gave us views of a sky bluer than we’d ever known.
“…put your little hand in mine…there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb…” Sonny and Cher were not done with us yet. Some blamed all the get-togethers from Memorial Day weekend…others said it was political rallies, beach parties, unmasked people, or not enough social distancing…whatever the heck it was, the news was reporting that covid cases were surging all over the country. July 4th was upon us.
Several other trips and family gatherings became eventual casualties. We grew used to canceling plans and doing nothing. At this point, school had been shut down for almost four months. Summer school did not materialize, even though that was the plan. The numbers were too high to justify a safe reopening. Zach was exhibiting signs of not only boredom, but of sheer anxiety; anxiety so pervasive that he began doing things, I believe, to rid himself of those feelings. OCD-like behaviors can be born from anxiety.
I did what I could to establish a routine that would comfort him. It is a delicate balance to seek and maintain: enough of a routine to provide stability, but enough spontaneity to avoid rigidity. We would have book-reading sessions, where I’d try to get through a reading of Fox in Sox without a mistake (still trying). We’d try out recipes and make fresh-pressed organic juice. We’d go on learning websites and try to get through some lessons. We did art. Lots of art. I’d help him practice typing.
The days were feeling monotonous, and I have to admit to feeling some dread like Phil did upon waking up each morning. There were occasional moments just before opening my eyes where I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was. Everything merged together into one monotonous covid time loop.
As fall approached, there were murmurs of another surge coming with the usual “cold & flu season.” The real Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania must have had a shadow the size of King Kong last year, given the ongoing winter 2020 resembled.
Before more surges kept us in, we (and most of the planet, it seems) took advantage of mild autumn days to be out and about. One of Zach’s favorite restaurants is Mimi’s Café. He loves the steak and frites. With a dual sense of excitement and trepidation, we accepted Mimi’s email invitation to Come dine with them. The seven-month steak and frites hiatus inspired Zach to devour the plate in under three minutes. Then he asked for more, and a second full plate disappeared rapidly. I hadn’t seen him that happy in months.
It felt safe-ish to resume some normal activities. In a bewildering covid time warp, stores were displaying holiday goods when it felt like we were still anticipating Easter. At least we could buy toilet paper. Zach’s IEP meeting triggered thoughts of a return to school and a resuming of assistive services. And a family trip planned for October really seemed to be a reality for us. We’d finally get to see everyone! Aaaahhhh – it felt good to lower the shoulders and breathe a little more easily. “Groundhog Day” nightmares were going away.
“They say we’re young, and we don’t know…we won’t find out unti-ih-illl we grow…
Well, I dunno if all that’s true, cuz you got me, and baby, I got you….”
Sipping dark roast, I saw the graphic on TV. CNN’s Brianna Keilar’s face was serious, as it typically is, and she was mouthing words that showed up in closed captioning. I turned up the volume.
“… is now the covid hotspot…cases have dramatically risen…stay-at-home orders have been issued…”
What was she talking about?
Where were we planning on going in a few weeks?
Talk about someone or something bursting your balloon. My heart sank. I blew a fuse. Frankly, there aren’t enough idioms to cover the levels of disappointment I felt. It was, for me, to risk the use of another idiom, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I wept. We did what we were supposed to do, for months. We stood by, holding on to hope and the knowledge that soon, this too shall pass. We stayed in, we stayed away, we stayed isolated, we stayed safe, we stayed home. We pinned our sanity to something in the future. Surrounded by Lake Michigan and Green Bay and bright autumn leaves and family… my hope had been pinned to that.
And now that was going to evaporate. Yes, we could have risked it. We could have attempted to travel 2,145 miles, traversing the Rockies and the plains, fully masked and sanitized and socially distanced. But our guts told us no. Don’t risk it. So, we didn’t.
When there are special needs in the family, it takes thinking twice (or three or four times) about anything and everything you want to do. I’m a planner by nature; a list-maker, a gung-ho researcher, an avid check-it-out-ahead-of-time person. I tossed the idea of going to Wisconsin around in my planner-brain for several days; it didn’t sit well. Special needs in the family are also accompanied by special health needs, and I decided that the risk of going was not worth the worry. I decided that it would be better to have such a trip another year when we all could be together without fear as an unwelcome presence.
At this point in time, unfortunately, anxiety had a chokehold on Zach. His health wasn’t so good, and he started rejecting favorite foods. Mimi’s had shut down again; no steak and frites. My mood tanked, and so did Zach’s. I started not caring what day of the week it was; it was just more isolation and loneliness. You could feel it in the air.
I felt as if we were prisoners of the Cherry Tree Inn like Phil. Looking out the window, I gazed upon the same people walking down the street dressed in the same garb. And I was one of them. I sighed. I cried. I stopped watching the news. I took breaks from social media. The “new normal,” as everyone began calling it, was anything but normal, and certainly not welcome. Phil didn’t accept his “new normal.”
Phil didn’t accept his “new normal.” A thought crossed my mind: how did Phil get OUT of the time loop? The movie had a happy ending. How did it end exactly? What stopped him from reliving the same day over again? My memory was blurry. I was on a mission for clarity.
I Googled “Groundhog Day.” I scanned Wikipedia and IMDb. I remembered Phil trying to wreck his car. Hitting Ned, the insurance guy. Yelling at a homeless man on the street. I couldn’t recall what those scenes meant. I knew he ended up with Rita, but how? Something about the movie seemed to hold a key for coping with all of this ongoing covid craziness.
One night, I watched the movie. I had to. Something was telling me there was a message there. And it’s what I want to share with you.
Phil was determined to exit the unchanging circumstances. He grew both angry and weary of the monotony, much like we have with covid. But, nothing worked to help him escape. His bitterness gave way to destructive habits. He was harming others and himself. If he was not accountable to anyone for anything – why care about how he lived life? He was “locked in,” and his first choice was self-destruction.
There have been people, whether we know them or not, who have buckled under the weight of covid-induced isolation. Some have become depressed. Some have turned to bad habits. Some have faced self-destruction. We can all relate in some way.
One thing brought Phil’s self-destruction to an end: his love and devotion to someone else. It directed his path toward something good. It became a catalyst for him to use information he gained one day to usher positive change the next, even though he was reliving Groundhog Day. His love for Rita became a North Star. He began to seek purpose in everyday moments. Groundhog Day kept repeating, but he kept rebuilding.
Phil broke the patterns of behavior and thought which kept him bound and miserable. He focused on bettering life for others and using the time loop knowledge to repair difficult situations for people around him. He did things which were out of character at first. We witness some fumbled attempts to “do good,” and then we revel in his genuine joy as he succeeds in helping people.
Zach was watching the movie with me. I think he liked Andie MacDowall’s curly, black, snowflake-dappled hair. We watched Phil dance with Rita in the gazebo at Gobbler’s Knob. He makes an ice sculpture of Rita’s face. When she asks how he did that, he says, “I know your face so well I coulda’ done it with my eyes closed.” He then tells her that no matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of his life, he is happy now.
BOOM. There it was. How Phil broke free.
It all fell into place. Breaking free was (is) what followed when a simple choice was made, grounded in love.
Phil chose altruism. He made the choice while IN the repetitive loop to be happy. To help others for their sake; not for his own sake. He didn’t want notoriety; he stopped seeking the spotlight. He decided if absolutely nothing changed about his circumstances, he could still be happy. We make the choice. It seems a rather obvious revelation, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s one we often overlook.
It’s easy (and human) to fall into the mental trap of thinking our circumstances dictate our happiness. That what happens around us and to us is in control of us. Like Dorothy and her red slippers, like Carl Fredericksen and his balloons…we each must surrender to the journey and let our love for others lift us up and bring us to our true purpose.
Purpose for life comes when we step outside of ourselves. When we carry people in our hearts with an “I got you” attitude, altruism flourishes. And the flip side of that? That is where you find, and cultivate, gratitude.
As we individually and collectively continue to experience our lives as they are affected by covid, we would be wise to find our North Star. We can depend on its light, and we can know its brilliance in the darkness. After all, the darkness gives us the proof that it exists.
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