Two years ago today, I took a photograph of the parking lot at the office. It was emptier than I’d ever seen it on a business day. Two years ago, I held the door open for someone whose hands were full with laptop and lunch tray, and she looked at me shamefaced. “I was trying not to touch the door handles,” she said, intending apology; she hadn’t meant to encourage me to touch them either. Two years ago, my colleague J and I talked about how much we didn’t want to work from home.
Last week, Google announced the official return-to-work date for the Bay Area. If I’ve learned one thing over the past two years, it’s that the future is uncertain, but if I had to bet, I would bet that this time it sticks. We humans, like other animals, run on seasonal cycles. It feels like no coincidence that the timing is so precisely two years later, almost to the day – not in a PR sense, but simply because annual cycles feel like a natural structure to orient around.
Two years. I suspect that all of us who’ve lived through this will remember this time as a marker, a shift. I spent the first month figuring out how to make my own lunch (in my defense, not only was I out of practice, but getting groceries was a challenge, and I suspect I underestimated the mental and emotional hit of lockdown as well) and getting my computer setup working acceptably for work. I remember the feelings of rage and frustration as the world slowed. I remember the fear I felt for my parents, the disorientation and surely not really when I was on videocalls with people in New York, and heard ambulances’ sirens, and the people I was talking to said they could see the hospital tents going up in Central Park. At home, we were in the middle of a house remodel, and simply putting everything on pause with walls down to the studs was painful. When I went for a walk, the other few people out walking and I crossed to opposite sides of the street.
I was sick – was it Covid? I don’t know; I suspect so, but I assume I will never know for sure. Covid or not, it probably accounts for some of my retrospective mental haze.
My mind kept running on the same cycles. I kept thinking there must be some way to push through.
I had been so busy. Suddenly, I wasn’t.
I remember the feeling of relief.
I remember how I sat in the yard and watched the eastern hills as the Bay Area’s pollution faded away.
I remember seeing a dozen baby quail arrive, scurry, hunt for seeds, grow up. They were smaller than my thumb at first, and there were times I didn’t cross the yard for fear of scaring them.
I learned that I am as much homebody as adventurer, which for the prior twenty years I hadn’t really given myself a chance to notice.
I lost my dad.
One good friend had a baby; another good friend’s baby started growing up without my being there to see.
I read a lot. I gardened. I cooked. I went for walks.
There were the fires, and I was grateful for the air filters we’d bought for construction.
Two years. It’s a long time. It’s long enough for a person to really shift, to become someone else. To build a different kind of life. I have new rhythms, new goals. I want different things.
I am not interested in or willing to lose who I am now.
Now, one way or another, we are on to what’s next. I know the timing is different for everyone, and California’s Bay Area has been especially hardcore on restrictions – if you are reading this, maybe your experience is very different. I imagine the fact of the change, though, may be something we have in common, even if the nature of the change bears no resemblance.
How am I going to do this? I don’t know. I hadn’t expected to like working from home, but the observed reality is that I do. I like the focus of it, the ability to settle in to my time and think. I like the feeling of control. I am healthier than I have been in years. I feel more connected to my home, and, oddly, to my team at work. I would like to see my colleagues in person occasionally, but I like the time I now have alone; I cannot imagine going back to my pre-pandemic patterns. In a probably-related observation, I would like to see my friends more too – but I looked at my calendar for the months before the pandemic, and I have no intention of going back to that way of life either. In all spheres, before the pandemic I was simply doing way too much.
Now I need the patience and resolve to see what happens – and to shape my own version of what’s next.