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Still life with vacuum

Working from home during the pandemic has been an experiment in ritual and identity.

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
9 min read
Still life with vacuum

Against all odds, it is somehow, impossibly, March… again. How did this happen? If your memory does the hurky-jerk as it rewinds and plays everything from last year until now, you are not alone (bonus if your brain plays those memories in reverse with on-screen static like you’re rewinding an old VCR).

For many of us, the next few weeks and months will be small anniversaries - the last normal day, the first day working from home, the first COVID birthday, the first person you knew getting sick, the funeral you missed.

Now, we’re starting a wave of our second COVID birthdays, grads convocating online again, entering year two of working from home (remember how inconceivable this seemed in March!!!). This year is frightening and exciting proof of how quickly things can change.

It’s also been an awkward time. A great year to say ‘bye, bitch’ to the things you never really cared about. To acknowledge there are some things you can’t bother lying to yourself about anymore because you’re too damn tired. And a great time to dive deep into the ocean of you and see what you surface with.

Many times this year I’ve had a very Little-House-on-the-Prairie urge to drop everything I didn’t care about, circle the wagons around the people I loved, and cry, ‘Get away!’ at everyone while loading up a slingshot, drinking wine, and also maybe wearing a giant nightgown. We’ve all been there.

And in between the manic moments, there’s the monotony. This piece is a meditation about that side of the pandemic. The self-hypnosis, the repetitive days spent not going out, avoiding people, staying home, working in the same spot. Trying to find meaning in it all. Maybe you can relate.


Still life with vacuum

Starting Out

The only way to take the days is in stride.

Eyes open first, meeting the eggshell ceiling of my room. I focus my eyes until I can pick out in one corner the faint outline of a star sticker the previous occupants left there and we painted over.

I kiss my husband’s shoulder a few times and listen to his muted responses, then roll into my running clothes and out the door. Movement has been a saving grace over the past eight months. When the walls feel like they’re closing in, I go out for a run. When my life feels small, I go for a long run to bring some of the bigness of the world back home with me.

After the run, I get home, core hot, thighs freezing, sweat itching behind my ears. I eat breakfast (an egg with fried tomato, or oatmeal with banana and peanut butter), shower the cold sweat off, then get dressed, kiss my husband goodbye as he goes to work at his reduced-capacity office. I don my fuzzy socks of power and sit down with a hot tea at my desk. The morning’s new podcast is already loaded up. It’s good to hear someone else’s voice.

In the morning, I drink jasmine pearl tea. The scented liquor makes one feel elegant. I mist some peppery rose-scented perfume on my wrists that reminds me of being in Portland’s Rose garden, in the days where I travelled. Has it been less than a year? I don’t understand time anymore. I feel old. I look at the framed map on our wall of our last big road trip across Iceland. At every place we stopped, we doodled an inside joke in ballpoint pen. The thought of never being able to do that again squeezes my throat like an invisible intruder. I banish the thought and he is gone before he can strangle me.

This may be the closest my life will ever be to monkhood. I was never the type to seek out a silent retreat or want to go sit in the desert alone for four days. But, here we are.

I tell myself I should feel lucky for the experience and to look alive instead of feeling grumpy about it. To experience life without people is like jazz without improvisation. Even though we can go out to see people now, for a short while, or in small groups, to some degree I still feel like I’m in seclusion. Meeting up with more than a few friends feels like sneaking into an underground speakeasy.

The password is: ‘speak moistly.’

Elevensies

Mid-morning, I take a break from my computer screen to stretch, flop around on my bed for a bit, scratch my lazy cat under the chin and let her grab my hand and lick it, searching for some imaginary chicken. Then I grab the vacuum.

As the motor virrrrrrrs to life, I start doing meditative passes over the dark wood floors. I think of the monks I met in Japanese and Korean temples who clean their shiny pine floors daily, running back and forth, their bodies shaped like triangles as they bend and propel themselves forward. In the windows behind them I see a landscape of mountains with cherry blossoms flaming white in the sunset. The floors are so clear and shiny they reflect the blossom fire back. They look more like pools of wood that slats.

In the living room, I chase another tumbleweed of cat hair from ending up under the sofa. I try not to let my brain float too far from my head these days. It gets disgruntled.

My Opa passed away on April 30th, during the beginning of the pandemic, a day after my thirtieth birthday. Although then, it already felt like forever, and we didn’t know that it was just the beginning. How much we didn’t know. Or what we thought we knew. On the 29th, he’d called me and chatted about life and everything, like usual. I told him about a coffee pickup from my neighbourhood roaster that looked more like a bank heist:

“You have to park on the curb, pop your trunk, then call this number, tell the coffee guy you’re there, get back in your car and then someone wearing a bandana will come out and put your order in the trunk, tap the car when you’re good to drive away.”

He laughed at that.

My Nana passed away in November, seven months later, eight months into the pandemic. It was just a couple of weeks shy of what would have been their 66th wedding anniversary. They made it to 65 though. That’s pretty impressive. On a bad day, I look at my husband and I and wonder if we’ll ever be as good as they were. I know I’m idealizing them. They loved each other to the end, and always took care of each other. The perfect couple. From inside my marriage I can see all the scratches and artist’s marks. I’m sure they had their problems too. I just never saw them.

As I vacuum, I straighten the new framed photos of Nana and Opa on the wall.

This vacuum I have came from their house, when I helped my mother clear it to sell. It’s a fancy one that weighs almost nothing, making cleaning more meditation than labour. Isn’t that the dream? To make all our tedious tasks feel like nothing?

Opa was a retired military man and loved a spick and span house. Nana used to sing hymns or old tunes as she vacuumed, “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet, Upon the seat, Of a bicycle built for two.”

Options from ‘The Sound of Music’ were also popular. Me, my mom, and my Nana all share the same middle name: Marguerite. It means Daisy.

Once the house has been cleansed, I tap some matcha powder into a bowl from Kyoto, whisk it, and sit in the sun to drink it. It’s the kind of small pleasure that feels out of place in an office but comfortable at home.

I work a bit more before lunch, stopping around 12:30 or 1. Sometimes I go out to a café to get a sandwich, waiting masked in line behind a few other customers. A few times I’ve made a trek across town just to go to a café that makes a croissant sandwich with pickled carrots I’m especially fond of. When the days feel grim, those pickled carrots can really be a lifeline. It takes time and care to pickle carrots. It’s nice to know someone else hasn’t given up. Gives you the strength to keep going.

Some days, I’ll make a toasted sandwich at home for lunch, with thick slices of Dutch cheese and tomato, or smoked salmon bedded on rye with spicy arugula leaves, Danish cream cheese and a squeeze of lemon.

If it’s sunny I’ll sit on the back deck and watch canoes go by on the lake behind our house. My oldest cat is an unapologetic calico with short hair and a long belly. She comes out and flops down beside me, wriggling on her back. If she doesn’t try to steal it from me, I’ll give her a piece of salmon.

Another couple of hours of work, and then a teatime snack, which might include a spicy black chai with generous helpings of milk and plenty of cardamom. Drunk with cornbread, slathered with butter and honey.

Later in the afternoon, I may have an apple before supper. I have been feeding myself well during this pandemic. It’s one thing I seem to be managing.

Sundown/Daylight Fading

Some nights I do a virtual yoga class, rolling up the rug in my bedroom to make space for the mat. This time of year, my west-facing window fills the room with fingers of warm, yellow light that creep around the blinds. I feel the year pass as the sun dips earlier and earlier below my blinds. In the summer, my 7pm yoga class was lit in afterglow. Then, by candlelight. The sun slipping away like the year, faster and faster.

Lying on the bedroom floor during golden hour, with the warm white walls and bedsheets, I feel like I’m inside an egg. A soft-boned little zygote, away from the world. I light a candle that smells like eucalyptus and cedar.

I am utterly alone, and also with a class of 20 other people.

“Find yourself beneath the current of the world,” says my yoga instructor as I vinyasa my way through a plank to downward dog.

I lay on my back in my egg-room and feel like I’m 2,000 leagues under the sea and also flying through the stars. I visualize my breath as light moving through my body.

I remember doing shrooms in college. I think about how far my mind went from me. I think about how with no stimulus, it’s almost the same thing. Once I caught myself boiling water for tea and while waiting I let my eyes unfocus while my brain turned the brush patterns on our kitchen tile into a tableau of monsters.

I think about sensory deprivation chambers. I wonder how much you can take away from a person. I wonder about ascetic lifestyles. I wonder about Jesus in the desert wearing rope sandals for forty days and nights and how he was probably happy to be tempted by Satan just to have someone to talk to; how you’d just go crazy out there in open-air solitary confinement.

I wonder about who I am, who I was, who I’m becoming. I’ve been cycling through the music from different periods of my life: high school artsy girl, emancipated liberal artist, on exchange as a stranger in a strange land, poor recent graduate, agency professional… all these times blend together. It’s like the borders keeping them separate has come unstuck and now they’re all tumbling down like music notes with no staff. Past versions of myself keep dropping in on what I’m doing now, to give their opinion and then disappear as quickly as they came. Little ghosts of me.

Yoga ends and I spray the mat down and hang it over the railing to dry. Rosemary hangs in the air.

In bed, at night, I read books. One is set in an imaginary kingdom inhabited by romantic thieves and magic women, another is a non-fiction tale of adventures on the open road. In it strangers are casually touching, sharing space, and getting into close quarters. No one is wearing masks. Both stories seem equally fantastical.

Sometimes I read with a cup of mint tea.

The last thing I do before bed is listen to the rain. I put on soundproof headphones and meditate while listening to the recorded sound of a downpour on a cabin roof. Meditation seems like something healthy-minded people do, but really, it’s just my way of hanging on to the world. To keep from going to darker places. A tether to keep my brain here instead of off and floating away.

I’ve had my good times and bad. Summer was good, later fall and winter was bad. Now things are getting okay again. The sun helps, vitamin D pills help, yoga helps, running helps, vacuuming helps. Boundaries help.

“Remember: sleep, stretch, sun, and…” my husbands trails off.

“What? That’s it, right?”

He smiles and gives me a coy little wink, “sex.” I roll my eyes at him and let out a disgusted noise.

“Go make me breakfast.” I say and throw a pillow at him. But I’m also smiling.

In my desk there’s an uncashed SSRI prescription I keep as a security blanket. We all have rhythms we’re trying to keep. This is part of mine.


Thanks to everyone for fighting so hard this past year. We’re doing it. Stay sane, stretch, and get that sun.

Blanket Fort

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