This morning I woke up to my 44th day of being at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shelter in place orders. And everything in my universe is pretty well in order. Let me right here acknowledge the relative privilege I have to be in the position I am in. I worked for a lot of what I have, and some of it is just luck, circumstances, and privilege, some things I control, some things I don’t. This post is not meant to be prescriptive or descriptive of anyone’s experience but my own, take from it what you will and leave the rest.
I woke naturally around 6:30, our new shelter in place work day wake time anyway. The sunlight and warm air of summer were already streaming into my bedroom and the bird song of emerging spring birds are more pronounced. Everything was still until I started to stir, then our cats, who I found sitting quietly and patiently at my bedside, began to stir and ramp up into their morning chasing and mucking with household items they have determined are prey. I’ve been on the fence about having furry kids for a long time and recently decided to adopt again, bringing Statler and Waldorf home with us Valentine’s weekend and having these furry companions around the house these days has been a true delight and working from home basically means I get to have my pets at work with the added bonus of being much more present as they settled in and adapted to their new home.
Both my husband and I are working from home, a privilege not enjoyed by a lot of people right now. My employer moved early and swiftly to observe both San Francisco and then Bay Area counties, and then statewide orders to shelter in place, among the earliest in the nation, and while a significant strain on many, we’re pulling through and will move to a slow and steady return to increased economic activity when indicators point us in that direction and we collectively determine what our new normal is. And I’m going to stop there with that thought—this is not a post about the political pros and cons of the very difficult and painful position that we are all in right now as a global community.
Our employers are doing all they can to both keep us whole and keep us working, and while that has its highs and lows, complications and frustrations, it’s loaded with a ton of benefits, too, not the least of which is continuing to pay our mortgage. I’ve worked very consciously over the last year or two in particular to set boundaries between my home and work like. I work in human services in the Non-Profit sector, and the ease with which those lines blur and lead to overload, overwhelm, and toxic stress is ever present. There was definitely some shock and necessary transition when suddenly, literally overnight, my work life landed square in the middle of my home sanctuary. The good news is that I’ve always been a homebody, and I very quickly realized that I was made for this—working in my pajamas, taking cat breaks on the couch, and I’ll say it, not showering quite as much. And you better believe that while I’m on those many conference calls that mostly require that I listen, and not necessarily participate actively, I’m doing dishes, cleaning my kitchen, and prepping dinner ingredients. It’s kind of a necessity when you consider that both of us working from home means we are going through a lot more dishes, especially coffee mugs and wine glasses. Grappling with the new and evolving nature of how I must do my job has been a painful and important reminder that the folks who would most benefit from our services are the most challenging to reach—this experience, I believe, has been a chance to reconnect with mission and purpose.
My husband is truly my best friend and other half, and living together, working together, and being cooped up in the same space together literally 24/7 has presented neither of us with much of any unexpected complications or stress—we’re handling this experience pretty much like we handle everything else—we’re partners, we’re in this together, and we both pitch in and do the things that need to get done until they’re done, unless we’re just not feeling like it, then there’s not really any judgement, mostly just acceptance, understanding, and support. So that’s awesome, and totally why I married him. And before you go gagging and rolling your eyes, let the record show that I went through plenty of painful experiences to learn about myself and what a happy, healthy relationship is to me, I didn’t find him until I was 40, and I had to go to Kyrgyzstan to find him, so no, relationship happiness did not just fall out of the sky.
Fine tuning my adjustment to working from home took a little more work—I still felt exhausted at the end of every day and still with diminished capacity to do all the quarantine things I wanted to do, let alone all the things I saw on Facebook. As this new routine balanced out, I did find myself making more time and energy for elevating my skills in crafty, culinary, and other interest areas, and possibly socializing more than in Pre-COVID times now that I could do it from my couch, though I’m also sitting with the Zoom burnout like many others, as well. I’ve upped my coffee roasting game, picked up new yarn skills (my project bags now officially take up more space on the couch than I do), and am developing my origami skills thanks to a friend who has launched some online tutorials. I’m also playing with sourdough starter vicariously through my husband, who created and manages a starter that we already shared with a friend who shared it with a friend, and we’re exploring and experimenting with all the options for using the discard.
At the risk of being a target for rotten tomatoes, I’ve also had very little issues getting deliveries, in contrast with loads of people in my social networks. I did have long wait windows early in this process, nearly a week at one time, and have encountered occasional unavailable items and restriction on quantity, I’ve been grateful to still be able to order essentials, and even a few indulgences, like alcohol and Prosciutto di Parma (oh yeah, that went on a discard pizza tonight). While there are undoubtedly many factors at play, I speculate that my relatively unchanged access to delivery services is a result of the neighborhood I live in. San Leandro’s economy is significantly based on manufacturing and it’s kind of blue collar. It’s a small bedroom community to nearby bigger meccas like Oakland and San Francisco and it’s a little rough around the edges with plenty of the same challenges faced by our neighbors—signs of homelessness, poverty, and petty vandalism. My suspicion is that there are a lot of hard working gig economy folks in my neighborhood, and probably also less demand for deliveries, so Instacart has been a great resource for me. It also helps that my husband is a boy scout that was never really a Boy Scout—we have a bucket of space food and plenty of bottled water, stocked emergency go bags, and we even reheated leftovers on a little camp stove during a recent power outage. We are both frugal DIYers and love the challenge of making things out of whatever we have around. I make many of my own cleaning supplies and personal products, and it didn’t hurt that I accidentally ordered too much toilet paper at the beginning of the year, so we’ve got adequate calories, cleaning supplies, and paper products, and will make do with what we have as long as we need to. We’ll keep working to balance the privilege of not only still being able to order fresh produce, but wine and fancy pork, with being mindful of the health, safety, and wallets, of gig economy workers who are making it possible.
What’s truly at the heart of all this happiness in the midst of this unprecedented global event fraught with harsh economic, health, safety, and other consequences for so many? The pivotal factor and greatest source of positive externalities in my shelter in place life is significantly my lack of commute. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2010, the access I had to public transportation, especially in contrast to the much more rural location I had moved from, was one of the most liberating feelings I’ve had—moving from a place where it literally took me 2 days to travel about 45 miles using public transportation, to a place where I could cover about 25 miles in an hour gave me a sense of freedom I’d not felt since riding the rails around Europe in my twenties. When my husband and I bought our little townhouse in San Leandro, my commute changed, it became a little more complicated, a little more annoying, first world problems, mostly, though I quickly noticed a tangible impact on my happiness at work—the change was enough to really make me hate my daily commute, and when your work day is sandwiched between an hour at the beginning and end by something that is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting, it’s all the more challenging to have a happy and fulfilling work like. To make things more complicated, it wasn’t just the ways in which my commute changed—BART was no longer reasonably walkable and I became reliant on a bus to travel the first and last mile. The socioeconomic conditions in the Bay Area were shifting noticeably around this time, even just in contrast to the Bay Area I’d arrived in in 2010. Homelessness was growing even more visible in the form of tents piched on urban sidewalks and migrating further south in the East Bay along BART tracks, individually and in small numbers at first, then in growing clusters all over the Bay Area. Panhandling was becoming more prevalent and widespread, and there seemed to be an increase in acts of petty vandalism. Once upon a time, I felt safe in the BART system. If, for example, I was out late in San Francisco or Oakland late at night, as was frequent for both work and social activities, I walked at a brisk pace and was extra vigilant about my surroundings when moving through city streets from an event to my ride home, and always felt a tangible sense of relief the moment I passed through the fare gates, and more so once settled onto a homeward bound train. Not so much these days. BART and other transit systems have essentially become a dumping ground for our collective failures as a society—panhandling, homelessness, substance abuse, aggressive and sometimes violent behaviors, and crime are all pretty daily parts of a daily commuter’s life these days, at the gates, in the stations, on the platforms, and on the trains. Piled on top of the minor annoyances of a long commute and other stressors, I found myself marinating in cortisol pretty much every day.
And now? What once was my morning commute is now another hour of sleep and a slightly shorter morning routine. What once was my afternoon commute is now closing my laptop, pouring a glass of wine, and plopping on the couch for some casual Facebook scrolling while I contemplate dinner. Not commuting and working from home instead, mostly just this one factor in my life right now, means that more household chores are getting done more efficiently and my time and energy reserves are more available for personal development, indulgences, learning, creativity, and regular hugs and kisses throughout the day from my husband and cats, more living in my living room, and a sense of self-actualization, a sense of life on my terms and not just feeling like a cog in a machine, and a whole lot less cortisol.
Nothing is permanent, and though the outlook for the kind of work I do looks to be done remotely for some time to come, I understand that this is not forever. And while it is true that many shitty things are happening to many good people right now, life in my little corner of the universe has honestly never been better. I am cognizant that every time I place a delivery that allows me to stay home and safe, someone else is taking a risk, so I aim to tip generously and order often enough to keep people working, and not so much as to abuse the privilege. Every day that I avoid potentially exposing myself to something that is legit killing young and healthy people, it is another day that one more person isn’t adding to the pressure on our health care system and putting health care workers at risk. Every day I can use my privilege to stay home, there’s one less vector out on the streets buying us all time until medical professionals and policymakers can find common ground and alleviate the burden on those who are bearing it the most. There is a balance for all of us to find between personal responsibility and collective prosperity, and it’s going to look different for all of us, and that is ok. I believe that we are all doing the best we can under some pretty extreme circumstances and must make the decisions that are best for us, our families, and our communities, and sometimes that means making a decision that is less shitty than the alternative.
44 days in over here and weirdly never been happier, mostly just because I’m not commuting two hours daily—just that one factor has had so many positive ripple effects that now allow me to contemplate this new world order, what is to come, and how to leverage my privilege as a resource. I know this much to be true—regardless of how you feel about current circumstances and how they’ve impacted you, in a matter of just a few weeks, everybody’s normal has been turned updside down and I’m not optimistic things will ever be the same. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Heros are now teachers, who clearly do more than teach, medical staff and caregivers, literally putting themselves in harm’s way for us, the farmworkers, food handlers, and grocery store staff that feed us, truckers that move vital supplies, and the gig economy workforce that keep goods and services rolling. We feel the absence of arts in our lives as theaters close and performance and music finds new life in virtual spaces. With the workforce stripped to its bare essentials, we now see clearly who is the heartbeat of our economy, and that they tend to get by on the lowest wages and inadequate access to benefits like PTO and basic health insurance that help keep the workforce, and wider society healthy. Flexible work and school accommodations that the disability community have fought for for decades miraculously became an acceptable norm for everyone overnight. The vulgar tennis match that plays out on my Facebook newsfeed everyday between my liberal and conservative friends shows that the divide we face as a nation has never been deeper, and this, perhaps saddens me the most, as I believe it will be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. On the brighter side, Facebook shows me that lots of people are digging deep into their creative reservoirs, making more things from scratch, both food and materials, learning to spend time together more mindfully, whether in-person or virtually, and I’m seeing communities of all kinds coming together in support of one another, and that is where the healing starts. We are reassessing our values and priorities, and I hope, reconnecting somehow with the human in humanity, despite or because of physical distancing. Our collective Etch-A-Sketch has been shaken violently, and that just means we get to draw a new picture.