The Covid-19 news of the past few weeks is having an effect on all of us. The sun may be shining, the daffodils may be blooming (or not, yet, depending on where you live), and you may be going about your business pretty much as usual. But things are changing–or rather, this thing, this virus, is changing the way we think about our lives. Changing our lives may be required of us, of course, in big ways and small. And if we’re going to do that, changing the way we think is the place to begin.
Over the decades of a longish life, I’ve made a gazillion important decisions. But the most important might have been when I came home to work. That happened about thirty-five years ago, when I was in my mid-forties. By that time, I had been working out there in the wide world for twenty years, raising kids and studying and teaching and writing and traveling–doing all the career-building things a woman has to do if she’s going to survive and thrive in the career culture. I was a university professor and administrator, and it wasn’t unusual for me to invest 14 and 16 hours a day in my work, most of that time away from home. I wasn’t alone in this: many of us regarded the clock not as a taskmaster but as a badge of honor. Putting long hours into the job was an investment, a demonstration of commitment, especially if you were a woman. In a highly competitive culture, it was how you got ahead.
I won’t go into detail here (there’s more in Together, Alone, a memoir I wrote in 2007). I’ll just say that I reached a point in my mid-forties when I was forced to realize that the life I had created was unsustainable in the long haul, and that I had to reexamine the choices I had made and make decisions I never dreamed I would make.
This was apocalyptic, but not sudden. It took time–several years, in fact. When I emerged on the other side, I had made some life-changing choices. Perhaps the most important post-apocalyptic decision was that whatever kind of worklife I made for myself, it was going to be based at home. Since writing was what I knew, I would start with that. I would try to make writing my work.
It wasn’t easy. This was in the days before “working remotely” had become a thing, and there was no internet, no email, no networking. I didn’t know any women who had done this, so it was pretty much free-style. But I got lucky. I possessed enough skill and market-savvy to get started and enough determination to stay with it long enough to hone my startup skills. I was partnered with someone who had the same goals and was willing to give up the costly trappings of career-culture “success.” Working from home–home/work–became my new normal, and its freedoms empowered me to play with other creative parts of my life. Fact one, bottom line: Deciding to work from home was the best thing I did for myself, ever.
I think about this often now that Covid-19 has invaded our lives. Events we looked forward to are being canceled, some with tsunami-like economic implications. Employers are telling us to stay home–or we think that they might. Schools and nursing homes are closing–or we fear that they will, and we will have to make other arrangements for children and elderly parents. Must-have items on our stock-up lists are . . . well, they’re out of stock, and we’ll be out of toilet paper tomorrow. It’s hard to see, from where we’re standing now, that the outcomes of this thing can be anything but apocalyptic. And perhaps they will.
But maybe that’s what it takes for us to think seriously about the way we work and live, the way we spend our time and our money and our days and our nights. If this is an apocalypse, what will “normal” look like on the other side? What will we have learned–that is, beyond tunes we’re supposed to sing while we wash our hands for twenty seconds. We may be glad to have all that ramen and canned tomato juice on our shelves, but what else will we have? What won’t we have, when this is over? How is it possible to use this time to reconsider something very basic–the way we think about our lives?
We don’t know what the coming week will bring. But I hope you’ll have time for a little post-apocalyptic thought.
Reading note. When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.―