Before, during, next

The last time I wore makeup was March 9. It was a Monday. I woke up, showered, got dressed, put on makeup, drove to work.

Two days before work-from-home, the parking lot was already starting to empty. Pre-Covid, during the day there were usually more cars here than parking spots.

I took a photo of the nearly-empty parking lot.

I ate lunch with a colleague, and we agreed that about the last thing either of us would want to do was work from home.

The next day, I did work from home, not because of Covid but because I had a mid-day appointment in the opposite direction from the office and I didn’t feel like driving back and forth.

Then Google announced recommended work from home for nearly everyone in the Bay Area, and that was that.

When I left my office that Monday, I wasn’t thinking about never? not going back for months and months. I left a jar of homemade kefir fermenting in a desk drawer. I left cards from friends and photos from early work trips. I left sentimental notes from colleagues written during team building exercises but no less sincere (I hope) for all that. I left a tiny carved stone elephant. I left stamps. I left a sweater (I think). I left things that would have been useful: pads of sticky notes, an external keyboard, multiple types of USB cables, a mouse.

The change was so abrupt that no one had a chance to plan for it. I was distracted, too, because first my husband and then I got sick (Covid? I don’t know.) I think I caught up with how many people were feeling about a month later. Normal one day, surreal alternate-reality the next – and now it’s been nearly six months. Is it any wonder we’re still reeling?

Now I’m looking ahead and wondering what’s next. On the one hand, planning for a time in the far distant future – Thursday, say – seems incredibly challenging.

On the other hand, these days are the days I get.

I don’t want to accidentally miss them because I wasn’t paying attention.

Default

Years ago I walked the Camino Santiago. In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at the end, the priest prayed that “now that we no longer have the flechas amarillas, the yellow arrows marking the path, to guide us, we are able to find our way.” 

This week feels like a time when I need that. This week: 

Google extends work from home as coronavirus cases surge

More federal agents dispatched to Portland as protests rise in other cities

In my more specific world, over the past few days I’ve talked to more people socially than I had in the previous few weeks; there are a bunch of incredibly cute baby lizards in the garden, and one larger but also cute rabbit, which so far (fingers crossed!) has not wreaked havoc on the vegetables I’m growing; I have half a flat of nectarines in the kitchen, thanks to the grocery delivery service that I really like; the tomatoes are not yet ripe but look promising. 

And at the same time: It’s hard to know where to go from here. It’s hard to make plans. It’s hard to not make plans. It’s hard to know whether to see friends in person but socially distanced, or not. It’s hard to figure out work (sometimes it’s also just hard to work; for half of yesterday, my video call connections were so flaky that I actually couldn’t do anything). It’s hard to feel so blah and at the same time realize that objectively, there is nothing wrong: I am healthy; the people I love are healthy; I have a job. The house remodel is ongoing, but it is ongoing, and I have a non-leaking roof over my head. I miss the people I miss, and I am very very worried about the wider world, but I in particular am … fine. 

Last week I attended a senior women’s get together, virtual of course, in the hopes of finding a sense of community. I ended up feeling wildly out of place. The things I am angry about were different than what others are angry about. I don’t have kids, and a lot of it was (reasonably enough) about the frustrations of unknown school schedules; I kept thinking that most of the topics would have been relevant to men too, and I wished the men I work with were there. I felt like an alien life form. On the other hand, the management discussion group that I accidentally signed up to lead did feel a bit more community-like, and I am reminding myself that I am optimistic about that. 

There’s a value to having a default plan. Years ago I had insomnia, and I learned that even after very little sleep, I could get a lot done if I already had a plan. So I planned: every day at the end of the work day, I laid out what needed to happen next. The Camino offered something similar: sure, there were interesting detours and side trips I could take, but in general, the path was this way. I could choose to deviate, but the road was known. 

So that’s what I’m thinking about, and what I’m trying to do. The world is uncertain and I don’t know what I’m doing or what’s important. But a while back I laid out projects and priorities. Dates and timelines exist. 

I’m reminding myself: there’s a comfort in having a plan. 

Inner Landscape

The view from up high

One recent Sunday afternoon I went for a ‘distanced’ hike with a good friend I hadn’t seen since shelter-in-place began. She and I have always been hiking buddies; most of our conversations take place on a trail somewhere, preferably one high up, with a view. This time we were solving for empty space, a wide trail where we could walk apart from one another, and a slower pace because she’s pregnant and I’m just getting back into hiking. The weather was pleasantly hot, and there weren’t too many people on the trail. 

As my friend caught me up on what’s been going on in her life – work stuff, family stuff, preparations for her soon-to-arrive baby – I slowly began to realize how much I’ve changed in these past few months. Alone in my own head, spending time mostly with my husband and, over videoconference, work colleagues and a few friends, I’ve shifted focus. The things I wanted to talk about were different than they would have been in February. 

“How are you doing?” has become a real question. The answer changes like the weather. I’m more aware of weather, is one answer; I’m spending more time outside, and when inside, more time with a view of the sky. I think about work differently, what it is and how it functions, my own and other people’s, the kind I want to do and how I want to do it. I’m learning about soil. I’ve seen spinach flower and now I know what that looks like, and it’s fascinating. I’ve learned that an artichoke is a perennial, can grow over seven feet tall, and looks a lot like the plant version of a dinosaur. I’m thinking about seasons, both literally and metaphorically, and the (larger) role I’d like them to play in my life. There are people I miss, and people I don’t miss, and I’m surprised by who’s in which group. I have a different relationship to my physical self. 

I’m reading more, and more thoroughly. I’m cooking more. I watch lizards and bees and squirrels and the way the hummingbirds chase one another off a particularly good batch of blossoms. I’m learning the streets and landscape immediately around my home. I know half a dozen loop walks I can do to fit almost any amount of available time or energy. I have a new appreciation for my neighbors. I have a new dis-appreciation for the news, less because it’s sensationalistic and more because it’s repetitive. I am thinking about race, and gender, and systemic violence – but I’m trying to do so more slowly, more thoughtfully, than I might have done a year ago. “You were there in those days,” asked a junior colleague who I mentor, “what was that like?” She was asking about tech-bro culture and gender prejudice and how those related to my own experience in tech, during Google’s earlier years. As I answered, I realized the bitterness had gone from my response. In many ways I still don’t know how to assess those days, but somewhere in these past months, I’ve made my peace with that. 

Some of these changes are trivial, some significant – but they’re all meaningful at least to me. I don’t know how visible they are to others. Aside from a darker tan and more-sun-bleached hair, I don’t think I look very different. I am likely to tell you more than you want to know about the sex of zucchini flowers, or the way a corn stalk bends zigzag as the ears plump up, but beyond that – I don’t know. 

What I do wonder is this: if I am changing so much, and if I hadn’t noticed while it was happening – is everyone else changing too? I don’t mean we’d all change in the same way, of course – but are we all changing? Do we always change so much, so fast, or is the chaos and uncertainty of these days accelerating the process? 

What will I – what will we all – be like in a few more months? 

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