04/18/2020

Well, and just like that, we are all living in a different world. COVID-19 is not only making people sick, with some actually dying. It is shutting down businesses, keeping kids home from school, emptying store shelves, and causing people to lose jobs and housing. Needless to say, the overseas trip that I wrote about in my previous post had to be cancelled. It’s hard to imagine taking that trip now.

The word “unprecedented” keeps cropping up in the media and it’s true. Humanity has been through epidemics and pandemics before. But, the world was less interconnected and interdependent in those days, less complex in general. There were fewer systems that contagion could throw a wrench into.

It’s anyone’s guess at this point what the long-term, systemic effects will be, although the general consensus is that the economic impact will be devastating, particularly on those who are already vulnerable. As someone who is not fully informed and not a very good big-picture thinker, I’m not going to speculate here. I will only talk about the changes in my family and community that I have experienced first-hand.

The most immediate impact for me – for us – is that I got laid off from my bakery job. As all food establishments, the bakery had to stop offering eat-in service, and is now allowing take-out only. This change, combined with the fact that many people, both locals and out-of-towners, are choosing to stay home and not venture out at all, has led to a dramatic drop in business. So, some of the staff got laid off, and the remaining staff have had their hours reduced.

The bakery job is how we were able to make ends meet. My main job is by no means poorly paid; I really can’t complain about my paycheck. And, I am incredibly fortunate to still have this full-time job, and to have the security of knowing that, unlike many other jobs, it is not going anywhere. However, because there are two of us living on one income, and because we are still paying about $1,200 in credit card debt (in the form of consolidated loans) each month, one paycheck is simply not enough to cover monthly expenses.

I filed for unemployment shortly after getting laid off from the bakery and was approved; however, the first payment is yet to come. And, the approval itself may be a mistake. An HR staffer at my main job thinks that I may not be eligible because I do still work full-time, and I heard a similar conjecture during a COVID-19 relief webinar that I attended. So, I’m trying to get a hold of someone at the Employment Security Department to clarify, and, of course, they are so busy that getting a live person on the phone – even getting an opportunity to wait on hold – has so far proven elusive.

With the unemployment situation up in the air, no other jobs in sight, and any sort of government assistance only hypothetical at the time, my first instinct was, predictably, to look for a housemate. We’ve done this before, I thought, we can do it again. Big mistake. I was so panicked about our finances that I rushed into it and said “yes” to the first person who was interested – the only person, in fact, who was looking for local shared housing last month. He turned to not be a good fit, for a number of reasons that I don’t feel like going into at the moment, and we had to ask him to leave.

Because we had to tell our housemate to move out on extremely short notice – same day, actually – P. generously offered to refund the rent that he had prepaid for part of April. I agreed, and I’m glad that I did, but this means that we spent the first week of April in a stressful situation that we were constantly arguing over, without any sort of compensation for it. Oh well. A lesson in being more selective with housemates the next time around, I guess.

For now, we’ve decided, no more housemates – unless they are a friend, or come highly recommended by someone we know and trust. But, with the vast majority of people staying put due to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” rules and also the fact that no one is hiring around here, this “ideal” sort of housemate is unlikely to turn up any time soon. So, what to do?

The stimulus check – which arrived a couple of days ago, via direct deposit – should help. $2,400 is not an insignificant amount for us. To put things in perspective, it is roughly equivalent to about 3 months’ pay, with tips, from my baking job. We will try to make it last. Hopefully by the time we spend it down, things will be back to normal, and I will have my job back.

Other than the loss of the bakery job and the associated financial challenges, surprisingly little has changed in our lives because of the pandemic. A large part of this is due to the fact that I was already working from home for my main job even prior to COVID-19. So my daily routine is pretty much the same as before, except for not having to get up early and go to bed early. And, because we live in a sparsely populated rural area, there is no public transportation to avoid, or services that are no longer available. Of course, arts and educational events have been canceled, but, let’s face it, I only used to attend maybe one of those a month, and P. never went anywhere anyway. P.’s therapist used to come to our house before COVID-19 for that reason, and continues to do so now, except these days we meet outside – a practice that we also started before it became a requirement.

One additional change is that we are no longer hosting the Friday night dinners that I started at the beginning of the year. I do miss them – the social aspect, the fun of cooking for others, and the motivation to clean the house before guests arrived. However, I am still getting together with a few friends for “socially distanced” (a much better term would be “physically distanced”) walks. And, some weeks, if my Friday is turning out particularly busy at work, it is actually a relief not to have the pressure to cook, bake and clean while also trying to get stuff done for my job.

A common theme among those whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus restrictions on movement is how much more free time they have. All over the world, people are catching up on reading, finally calling friends and family they’ve been meaning to call, pulling out those cookbooks, getting to play with their kids without the constant distraction of busy lives, and binging on TV shows. (Of course, a lot of people are now having to home-school their children and otherwise keep them busy due to closures of schools and afterschool programs. These people probably have a lot less free time on their hands, especially if they are continuing to work. My heart goes out to them.)

Without my second job, I definitely also have more down time. However, as is often the case for me, most of the newly available hours have immediately filled up with other responsibilities. There is always more cooking and cleaning to do – although I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. There are things P. needs help with.

And then there is chicken care. One of our older hens got sick and had surgery two weeks ago. Since then, she’s been mostly a house hen. Up until last night, she had to be dropper-fed medication twice a day. Plus there is all the cleaning associated with having a chicken eat, and poop, indoors. While our girl is by no means out of the woods, she is now strong enough to be outside, and in fact that’s where she strongly prefers to be. However, she cannot be reintegrated with the rest of the flock because she cannot really hold her own against them, and also because she appears to be unable to digest whole grains, which comprise the bulk of their feed mix. So, she gets to go outside on supervised walks, which means I need to stay close and watch out for predators; there are plenty of hawks and eagles around.

The other chickens, too, are now getting to go on walks, and also need supervision. In the winter, when there was snow on the ground, they were confined to the small pen adjacent to their coop. They hate walking on snow, so even if I opened the door to the pen, they rarely ventured out. Even the bravest explorers took just a few steps before hightailing it back. However, for the past month, with the snow gone, they’ve been itching to escape their winter quarters and do what chickens do – dig, peck, and explore. So, we’ve been letting them out in the yard to free-range for a couple of hours every evening before they put themselves to bed. This means that I, too, get to spend these hours outside with the chickens. P. is able to stand in for me sometimes, but not often.

To be honest, this outdoor time feels like a mixed blessing. Because the chickens tend to scatter once they’re released from their daytime captivity, and because raptors can appear and attack suddenly, it’s hard to do much when I’m out “babysitting” our flock. If it’s not too cold or windy, and if the chickens are all more or less in the same area, I can read or even use my laptop – provided that they are fairly close to the house so I can be within range of our internet router. I don’t need to be online to type this post, of course, but most of the things I use my laptop for do require an internet connection.

If I can’t read or use the computer, I try to find little things to take care of around the yard, or else I go through the progressive muscle relaxation exercises that P.’s therapist has taught us. But, it doesn’t take long before I once again run out of things to do.

I know, I know, it’s good for my mental health to have some real downtime – like when I’m really doing nothing besides observing the chickens, or gazing at the surrounding hills that are filling up with the bright yellow heads of arrowleaf balsamroot flowers, or even practicing mindfulness techniques. I could probably stand to do something like this for maybe one hour a day. Any longer than that, and I start getting antsy as my mind fills with images of things that need doing inside.

We do have a solution worked out: a fenced garden area right in front of the house that our landlord has allowed us to turn into a chicken run, including putting a coop in there. We will then put some sort of screen over the top so hawks can’t get in, and voila: a safe yet fairly spacious chicken run just steps away from the front door. Someone we know has generously given us their chicken coop that they no longer need, and we even got someone to take it apart and move it to the rental property. However, it now needs to be put back together. This is something that I am absolutely incapable of doing, and that P. is capable of doing in theory, but not in practice. The current plan is to see if P. can work with a friend to get this completed. If not, we’ll just have to take a chunk out of that stimulus check and hire someone to do it.

I really feel for P. in situations like this (although it is also true that I feel frustrated). It must be so hard to know that you have the skills to do something – and to be unable to do it, because you can’t focus, or can’t muster the motivation, or lack the energy, or find it difficult to be outside. For him, these challenges are related to mental health; others may experience similar challenges due to physical health issues. I should consider myself very fortunate that, for the most part, I’ve been able to do almost everything that I’ve ever wanted. Of course, there are lots of things I’d like to do but haven’t yet, like travel more. What I mean is that I’m typically able to plan to do something and then carry out that plan. It sounds simple, but can be so hard for so many people.

I think I’ll end on this note of gratitude. Today’s sunset, too, was something to be grateful for – and, had I not been outside with the chickens this evening, I would have missed it.

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