The Rip Van Winkle Effect

Yesterday was the first time in many months when the people I saw at a local shopping center were mostly unmasked. Due to widespread vaccinations, many former restrictions had been lifted. Life seemed somewhat more “normal,” yet at the same time somewhat surreal. I thought maybe I’d fallen into a time warp. Who were all these strange people with exposed mouths? It reminded me of the Rip Van Winkle story I’d heard when I was a kid. I looked up a text of this Washington Irving tale from the early 19th century.

The basics: Rip Van Winkle was a middle-aged farmer in a small village in the Hudson River valley during the 1760’s or thereabouts. Though an amiable sort, he never made a go at farming. He spent a good bit of time away from home, a home that contained multiple children and a wife who often chided him about his lapses as a farmer. He sometimes frequented the local tavern, but even more often he took his gun and his dog and went hunting in the surrounding hills. 

On one of his woodland rambles, he encountered a strange man who was carrying a heavy keg uphill. Rip helped with the keg and later with its contents, which put him into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he was surprised to find that his beard had grown long and his joints had grown stiff. He was at a loss to figure out why. When he returned to town, some of the buildings had changed and he didn’t at first recognize anybody. He nearly got into trouble by offering his fealty to Good King George. The former colonies were now an independent country, he learned. After being vouched for by another local elder, Rip was given a welcome by his now-grown daughter. Gradually it dawned on him that he’d slept for a whole generation and was now an old widower, his wife having died a few years before. Once he adapted to life in his daughter’s house, he enjoyed an old age with the freedom to indulge his gift for stories and for entertaining the younger generations. 

Before the pandemic, I’d considered myself a spry retiree, an active participant in the community where I lived. My husband and I traveled widely, both in the U.S. and overseas. I thought we’d spend at least several more years traveling before we became frail enough to need to move near a grown child for support. Covid-19 changed our trajectory. For over a year, we were virtually housebound. Both over 70 with some underlying health conditions, we learned that according to the best available information, we’d be vulnerable to serious illness or even death should we be exposed to the virus. We coped partly by staying in contact via phone and internet. I sewed lots of decorative cloth face masks for family, friends, and local non-profits. Jim learned to paint river rocks and distributed them outdoors in nearby parks and trails. Early in 2021, we were fortunate to find an available vaccination site. 

By the time our immunity was at an acceptable level, our timetable for a move had compressed substantially. We began searching for a new home near  one of our grown children. We exchanged coasts, going almost as far as was possible within the contiguous U.S. Our new-to-us community is quite different from where we used to live. I’m learning Spanish. The quality and quantity of Mexican-themed restaurants are amazing. Automotive traffic is awful. 

My joints are stiffer than pre-pandemic. My hair is grayer, my middle more expansive. A little like post-nap Rip, I wonder what role I and other vaccinated seniors can play in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead. As a cohort, we are the most thoroughly vaccinated, with over 75% of us over 65 having received a full complement of vaccine.  

Like Rip, we may be able to share stories of past adversity and coping skills with the next generations. We will also need to adapt further to climate change (heat waves, droughts, floods, plagues of grasshoppers, wildfires, and so on) and social changes (demographic shifts, electoral reform, police reform, reducing violence, upgrading infrastructure, etc.). We may sometimes be as confused as Rip Van Winkle was when he awakened into the brand-new United States of America. 

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