If not for COVID-19 and my persistent tendency to procrastinate, I wouldn’t be writing these words while protesters across America rally in the name of George Floyd. The TV news shows a little girl, marching and chanting, “No justice! No peace!” The TV news also shows an elderly protester getting shoved to the ground by police. Meanwhile, here I am, safe in my privileged ability to work from home in the time of the pandemic. Here I am, reflecting on a few days in March when I stayed home because none of us traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the 2020 CCCC Annual Convention. Instead of conference photos with my fellow panelists and other attendees, I have a small set of Milwaukee postcards that I bought in the airport, years ago, during a previous trip. What can I learn from old postcards, month-old reflections, and an activity session my co-panelists and I had planned?
Here’s what I see: a postcard with a close-up of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle; another showing sailboats on Lake Michigan, with Milwaukee’s skyline in the background; and the third displaying the word LOVE in big letters filled with city scenes. Looking at these postcards now, I can confess that they don’t reflect on that long-ago trip at all. My then-partner and I traveled during a gray winter that was fitting for her sister’s funeral, which we had come to attend. I remember potluck meals and hushed tones and people I didn’t know and would never see again.
Nonetheless, the postcards and the memories offer a tiny sense of where I’ve been, and they remind me of the workshop my co-panelists and I had planned for the conference. We were focused on the commonplace of where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re going. “Speaker one” was going to tell stories of her travels to Africa, Russia, and Japan “before sharing how these experiences [led to] new ways of connecting with students at our Hispanic-serving institution.” I was going to talk about how narratives of place, particularly where we are now, can invite dialogue across space — workplaces, classrooms, and conference spaces. Our third panelist planned a contemplative activity drawn from her experiences with walking meditations in first-year composition. Our “Walk This Way” workshop, we hoped, would engage participants in pondering narratives of place and teaching.
Instead, by mid-March we had joined millions of Americans who were told to stay home. I see, in the reflections I wrote for the CCCC Documentarian project, just how surreal those early weeks were, and how I adapted. Almost every morning, I wrote a variation of this post:
I [have] settled into my [living room] couch. From there, I can open the front door for a nice breeze and a view of spring. The weather has been nice here [30 miles north of Dallas, Texas] — except for a few days when it was almost 90. I don't work in my office space as much — only when I need the benefits of a double-screen or I'm doing a Google Meet and want to use my webcam. Sometimes, I've worked on the front porch or sat in the backyard. Those outdoor connections help me keep cabin fever at bay. As for how these spaces help my work, my daily practices have me rethinking the setup of my office. Why don't I work there as often? For some tasks, I'm more productive in that space. It lacks a nice view!
I also wrote about productivity, or its absence. I wrote, “It's hard to say if I'm more productive at certain times. [Some] mornings … I felt productive.” Those were the days I started working early, when everyone else in the house was asleep, then hit a second wind that evening. My wife had been working a late-afternoon-to-midnight shift, and I was well adjusted to that routine.
Yet, routines failed me the week of the conference-that-wasn’t. In one post, I confessed, “Sometimes I get really going in the mid- to late-afternoons … but last week, [my wife] was home; honestly, I think that threw my rhythm off a bit.” What I didn’t write was that I often felt guilty because I could work from home and she couldn’t. Until a few weeks ago, my wife worked at the local hospital; her work could not be done from the safety of home. I did complain, however, about “the increased attention [required for] going online for courses I'm teaching; Google Meet sessions or phone calls in lieu of the usual face-to-face meetings; and the closure of restaurants for dine-in.” Here, in this reflection, I see that the stay-at-home orders really brought to the fore how much my wife and I loved eating out, and how unaccustomed we had become to cooking at home.
By the end of the Documentarian experiment, I had arrived in a new place, even if I didn’t quite see it at the time. I wrote:
One of the toughest things was completing a morning and an evening post. My days don't always work that neatly (even pre-COVID). And I had to accept the loss of one day when my spouse had to have two teeth removed because of infection. The daily reflections, though, had me thinking more explicitly about my theory of work (keep it steady, don't be dismayed by interruptions or delays or unproductive days) and my practice. I admit: it's been much harder to focus, because of the COVID situation.
As I read these words now, I see how the routine of reflecting, (most) mornings and nights, re-oriented me to myself, my work, and my world. Once upon a time, I was not only a journalist but a managing editor for a small newspaper. I had given up on becoming a professor. Instead, I worked 60-plus hours a week, often seven days a week. Every year, I had a surplus of unused vacation days.
I re-started my graduate-school goals five years ago, in the midst of this unhealthy routine, and when my job was eliminated (as so many journalism jobs have been eliminated in the past decade), scholarship and teaching saved me. And then, the pandemic saved me, and I didn’t know it until this moment. “Keep it steady,” I wrote. “Don’t be dismayed by interruptions or delays or unproductive days.” A few weeks after writing those words, I passed my comprehensive exams, then gained acceptance into candidacy for a PhD in rhetoric. That’s where I am now, in a new space with uncertainty and yet with promise. My wife quit the hospital job and is going back to school, too. We cook together (or she cooks while I’m writing or grading or “Zooming”). But I still wish I had a better view from the desk in my home office.
Dear 2020 Me:
I see that you still tend to procrastinate and prognosticate. It’s OK. Let it go and move on. The Year of COVID disrupted your routine, sometimes for the better and sometimes la plus ça change …
For example, in your “Postcards” entry, you questioned why you didn’t work in your home-office much, despite the care taken to arrange the space efficiently, with bookshelves close by and as much desk space as possible with the cheap furniture you bought at the start of your PhD studies here in Texas. I sense that you’re still not sure why you don’t work in that space as much, but give yourself a little leeway. You bought a new desk (all-natural wood instead of whatever composite the cheap one was made of); you rearranged your files and books; you gave yourself more space.
More importantly, I see that this year, you’ve opted to work more often at your campus office. That choice sets better boundaries between work and home. That choice shows me, your 2021 self, that you might have learned something during the Year of COVID. That choice tells me that, more than you realized at the time, you were paying closer attention to the sweet spot between work and play and rest. Keep it up.
I do hope, however, that you attend to other life-changes this year. Just as we saw a reduction in COVID cases and an easing of restrictions, you lost the family dog, Angus, to unexpected illness; and not long after, your mother-in-law died. I know you’re still processing those losses and dealing with related challenges. Allow yourself a little grace. Remember that you wrote last year, “Keep it steady. Don’t be dismayed by interruptions or delays or unproductive days.” As you observed last year, uncertainty and promise seem to go together.
Margaret V. Williams