(The following post contains my own personal reflections about COVID. I am not speaking on behalf of any of the organizations mentioned).
March 11, 2022 marks the two-year anniversary of when COVID-19 forced me to start working from home. That’s 730 calendar days, 520 workdays, and a minimum of 4,160 hours. It’s the same amount of time equal to my first job out of college, or my term on the Winooski City Council, neither of which seem possible. My sense of time is so warped that if you were to ask me, I’d not only tell you “last year” was 2020, but that I’ve only been working this way for a few months.
Those early days of working from home are a blur now, with nothing to punctuate difference. I can only remember how I felt. I was anxious all the time. I broke out in chills if I thought about COVID for too long. I lost sleep, hair, and one of my periods was severely late. In an attempt to regain what little control I had left in life, I meticulously documented the number of new cases and deaths in Vermont each day in a journal, which only made me feel hopeless. I thought there was always something more I could and should be doing for my job at Planned Parenthood, or on City Council. I had zero work-life balance. Each day started with a COVID-related meeting at 8:00 AM and sometimes didn’t end until after 9:00 PM. I was resentful that my sacred kitchen table where I used to enjoy meals and sip coffee had become my work area, and that our office where I used to spend my free time being creative and decompressing had become my husband Dan’s. I worried about my health and the health of my loved ones. I mourned the loss of concerts, trips, and time with friends. I planted a garden in the spring and desperately searched for new signs of life in it each day to contrast my never-ending loop of sameness.
Flipping through my journal two years later, I’m struck by the assumption that COVID would be short-lived. One entry from the beginning of the pandemic reads, It’s becoming apparent that so many aspects of our work will be impacted by COVID. During our meeting, we kept talking about events on the horizon and saying, “assuming they don’t get canceled.” In another, I asked a sales rep. if we could push an advertising campaign to fall, joking, If this thing is still going on in October, we’ll have bigger problems! It took me until June 2020 to retrieve my sad plants from the office. It took me another two months after that to admit working at the kitchen table was uncomfortable and that I needed my own dedicated workspace. And it wasn’t until December 2021 that I bought myself a mounted web cam instead of disconnecting and moving my laptop each time I had a video meeting.
Re-reading my journal was also a good reminder of how far we’ve come. In late March 2020, I wrote about a friend who tried to get tested for COVID and had been told they didn’t qualify because of the testing shortage; now I have 10 self-test kits just sitting in my linen closet; Another entry recalls masks not yet being for sale anywhere and attempting to make my own; two years later, I can’t go for a walk without seeing a disposable mask on the ground. The pandemic also forced many businesses to quickly embrace technology. In one entry I complained about spending 6 hours on phone calls; now Teams and Zoom is my workday.
It’s interesting, and disturbing, what you can get used to. Never in my normally extroverted life did I think I could spend my entire workday staring at a screen, seeing no other humans in real life other than my husband. But after two years, now I can’t imagine working in-person again. To be specific, I can’t imagine putting on hard pants and dress shirts five days a week; Or cramming 12 people into a stuffy, windowless conference room and sitting next to a sneezing colleague who assured the group, “It’s just allergies.”; Or touching a coffee pot, refrigerator door, cupboard, copy machine, door handle, faucet, or toilet that 60 other people have come in contact with that day; Or having a one-on-one meeting in my small office with someone sitting directly across from me and exchanging air droplets disguised as ideas for 30 minutes.
Over time, my anxiety about COVID lessened, I stopped journaling all together, and I found my work from home rhythm. I freely admit I actually like it now and the flexibility it affords. I also recognize the immense privilege I have to be able to do my tasks remotely when so many do not. But despite all of this and the mountain of evidence to the contrary, part of me still believes I’ll return to the office “eventually.” Maybe that’s because to me a return to work is inextricably linked to a return to normal for our world. And like the X Files—who couldn’t have scripted a more bizarre plot than COVID—I want to believe.