I’ve spent the pandemic taking daily walks around my neighborhood, along what are now overly familiar blocks. I try to vary my route, but I can tell you which patches of sidewalk are most treacherous, which houses have the most stylish doors, and where the yippiest dogs reside. Last week, a text interrupted this routine, with a link to schedule my first vaccination appointment. For a second, I thought it was spam. But I stopped, and clicked, and very shortly had snagged an appointment, for just a few days later.
The prospect of vaccination shocked my COVID-19 life out of its constrained yet predictable rhythm. I work from home; I wear pants without buttons; I spend Friday nights watching a movie or doing laundry and Saturday nights Zooming with friends. This little world is equal parts dull and intense; everyone I know is sad, exhausted, antsy, and resigned. I can’t wait to leave these confines behind, and yet this world is mine. The people who populate it care about me—they are happy to hear from me, even when I have nothing to say except how hard everything is. The dangers are monumental, but I mostly choose when I confront them. It’s both suffocating and a sanctuary.
In the same way that not everything about “normal” life should return, not everyone is ready to rush headlong into a world reopened. Making sense of this nebulous non-time will take a while (though efforts are already under way). The continuing losses—of life and livelihood, of routines and community, of trust in the future—are so immense and terrifying that they sometimes seem incomprehensible. Yet the emotional healing required for post-COVID-19 life is something a vaccine alone can’t provide. And despite the tragedy and horror, not every aspect of the pandemic has been terrible. With distance and reflection, those of us who were able to hunker down during the pandemic may even come to cherish the shelter of COVID-19 life.
In the mid-1980s, a futurist named Faith Popcorn became famous for inventing the idea of “cocooning.” “We are trying to control everything,” she told the New York Times reporter William Geist in 1986, “to protect ourselves from a harsh and unpredictable world.” The signs of cocooning were everywhere, in wholesome television series such as The Cosby Show and the renewed popularity of frozen dinners such as Lean Cuisines, in the explosion of VCR sales and the uptick in gun ownership. As people emerged from the drug-addled, sexually revolutionized 1970s and early ’80s, cocooning captured a cultural retrenchment and a desire for everything to feel homier and safer.
Cocooning caught on. Merriam-Webster traces its use to 1986, and the American Heritage dictionary officially listed it in 1993. Understood as an emergent trend, cocooning rendered disparate cultural shifts part of the same story—linking couch potatoes to Jane Fonda workout videos to the surge in ’50s nostalgia. Corporations as varied as Domino’s Pizza and Kmart used cocooning to rethink their strategies. As Popcorn wrote in her best-selling 1991 book, The Popcorn Report, “Cocooning is about insulation and avoidance, peace and protection, coziness and control—a sort of hyper-nesting.”
Popcorn had been talking up cocooning for years before it hit the zeitgeist. And once it did, she kept on talking: Cocooning would reign in the aughts, she predicted; cocooning was a trend to watch in 2006, according to her consultancy, BrainReserve; the financial cutbacks of the Great Recession would instigate a trend of “uber-cocooning.” No surprise, then, that BrainReserve calls the pandemic’s closed-off, sanitary existence “deep cocooning.”
Such constancy warrants skepticism, but in this case, cocooning does accurately describe what the pandemic has wrought. With the outside world disrupted and inaccessible, many people have been all but forced to retreat into a protective shell. As Popcorn anticipated in the ’80s, people fear the outside world and are careful about who and what they allow past their barricades. Stimulation happens inside; screens provide a controllable window onto the world. For some, the cocoon has a softness to it, with anxious hours occupied by home improvement, baking, and crafting. And just like the cocoons of yore, COVID cocoons are rife with nostalgia, especially as inhabitants binge on old episodes of The Sopranos or listen to decades-old music. Mel Ripp, a writer in Madison, Wisconsin, told me about going through her favorite albums from her youth because “nostalgia and my memories of being a kid seem like the one thing I can control.” The familiar is armor against a scary, unknown world.
Rather than think of Popcorn like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, it’s more charitable to say she identified a deep cultural impulse that has transformed the relationship between the individual and the public. The ’80s cocoons never fully opened. The pandemic accelerated a metamorphosis of the home that’s been decades in the making. Even as states reopen their economies, practices such as working from home, video first dates, DIY dye jobs, and nonstop online shopping will not completely vanish. They’ll stay because they are more convenient and cheaper than their in-person alternatives. And they’ll stay because they’re good enough and the pandemic has changed us. We’ve become both stronger and weaker, more accepting and less tolerant, more resilient but also more wary.
West Chester University hosts a digital archive that includes interviews of survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The interviews were done in the 1980s with people who were children during the outbreak. Listening to them recently, what I found most striking is that their tone isn’t exactly sadness. Two women reminisce about how their neighborhood had so many unburied bodies that the smell “would knock you right down through the alley.” Another woman recalls the neighborliness of her father, who once carried the corpse of a teenage boy to the cemetery, so folks could gather and pray. The stories are horrible. But the survivors’ voices? Candid. Tough. Purposeful. These are decades-old memories, cathartic not despite their difficulty, but because of it. Tahneer Oksman, an associate English professor at Marymount Manhattan College who studies memory and grief, explains that “thinking you can come out of something horrific—there’s a kind of euphoria that comes from that.”
As one of the thousands of “COVIDivorcées,” I can relate. When I tell people that my 13-year marriage ended during the pandemic, the most common reaction is pity. But having one’s life turned upside down isn’t nearly so bad when the entire world is suspended. As twisted as it sounds, the pandemic has protected me—from judgment, from feeling like I should put myself “out there” again, and from having to dine or go to the movies alone.
I’ve heard similar things from some new moms who had extra weeks and months with their newborns, and who feel both good and bad anxiety when contemplating bringing that child fully into the world. My friends with toddlers desperately need alone time and sleep, but have also told me how much they appreciate never having to dress up for anyone or be anywhere. Rory James, a comedian in Los Angeles, explained to me, “I don’t miss being in crowds. And in the future, I would pay more to eat at a restaurant that only operates at 25 percent capacity.” I’m a college professor, and during a recent remote class, several students voiced reluctance about attending courses in person next fall, because they fear their irresponsible classmates and have acclimated to taking classes from their bedroom. Human beings are an adaptable species, and Americans are both pugnaciously optimistic and hyperbolic. The combination of these characteristics is a paradox: People find a silver lining around even the stormiest clouds while also believing firmly that the sky is falling.
Apart from appreciating COVID cocoons, many people have determined that the “old normal” may not be worth it. That might involve seeing the benefits of working less, traveling less, and buying less. Or it might mean feeling incapable or unwilling to move at the pace that pre-pandemic life required. Fond memories of the pandemic, whenever they come, may be driven less by an affection for today’s hardships and more by fear and stress over tomorrow’s demands. “I’m not functioning with the mental quickness I’m used to,” wrote Jessica Grose recently in The New York Times, referring to the burnout of trying to work and parent during the pandemic. Others worry that their mental acuity might not ever return.
Of course, those who cocoon depend on people who don’t cocoon—those who are now called “essential workers,” and include the precariously employed, the food-insecure, and the working poor. Futuristic predictions that equate cocooning with refuge tend to ignore that being able to work from home and have groceries delivered is a privilege reinforced by the cocoons themselves. The pandemic has in many ways frayed the social contract, heightened divisions, and compounded inequities. At the same time, this era has underscored how interconnected every human life is to every other, and how the deep, structural inequities that plague American society have incalculable costs for everyone, even the most privileged. It is from this turbulent point that dramatic, systemic change—around issues such as police brutality, racism, poverty, climate change, disability rights, and so much more—might spring. Someday, this time might be considered as transformational as the late 1960s. If right now is indeed a revolution, that means, quite simply, we can’t just go back to the way things were.
Just like there was no road map during the pandemic for working parents with school-age children, or single people navigating social distancing, or seniors in nursing homes, there is no instruction manual for how to live in a reopened world. That world is both familiar and foreign. Opening quickly will have opportunities and costs that aren’t yet apparent. Once the new new normal begins, aspects of the old new normal might not look so bad.