“What a weird day.” is something I’ve probably said thousands of times since this time last year, and you have also probably said this or something similar an equal number of times. Perhaps more, who knows. Last week we marked the anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, and a lot of us marked that as the first last day – or the last first day – or something like that. For me and for my coworkers, our pandemic anniversary (I refuse to say pandemicversary) comes this week, and so like a lot of people, we did a little reflecting.
On Friday (this year) we had our weekly meeting and our director talked about how much we’ve done for the past nearly-a-year; how quickly we pivoted (a word we all heard a LOT) to online teaching and information desk help and everything else we do as the health sciences library in a research university. And indeed, we were able to quickly move our services online, almost seamlessly last March, without even missing a beat.
We talked, in this meeting, about the Friday before shutdown, when we learned that schools would be closed for an extra long March Break. On Monday we all came back and put up signs saying the circulating collection was closed, no more borrowing until further notice. We had fewer students in the library than usual, and those who were there were asked to email library staff if they had questions, we’d help them that way. No one wanted any help, and we mostly stood around – far too closely, in retrospect! – and chatted; we compared stories of what we’d heard, we talked about the risks, things like public transit and how are we going to deal with the books that come back? Procedures were put in place and by the afternoon, our library director told us to prepare for closing. That preparation came in the form of a half-day teach-in the next day where we learned Zoom, we had the phones forwarded from voice to email so students and faculty who preferred to phone could still reach us. We exchanged cell phone numbers so we could text each other. We created a LibGuide (because of course we did!) for library staff that had all the information we needed to log into our desktops remotely, to access the library system and the catalogue, and a lot more.
March 17 was our final day in the library, and then we were closed “for a few weeks” or so we all thought. Although we weren’t closed at all, really. Not service-wise anyway. And that’s kind of my point.
This story isn’t really unique, nor is it probably even interesting, by now. We’ve all – across the board – got similar stories of the “now you see us now you don’t but don’t worry we’re still online” at our jobs or our schools. We closed, we pivoted, (sorry) we did it all and then some online without even missing a beat.
And now that a year has gone by I often think, “But what if we had missed a beat?”
I know why we didn’t, of course. We’re a service-driven organization. We had students who were, at that point last year, finishing up assignments and theses, preparing for exams. They needed us. But what if they, too, could have missed a beat?
What if – and hear me out – we had ALL taken an extended March Break? What if we’d actually pulled the plug for a bit, just taken some time to breathe? Could we have avoided some of the burnout?
I guess when you think you’re only closing for a few weeks, a couple of months at best, there doesn’t seem to be any point. But once we were four then six then ten then twelve months into this year of pandemic, the pressure to keep on keeping on was immense. We’ve been doing it all along, haven’t we? And look, everything is going really well! But, as they say in the movies, at what cost?
I’ve been in meetings where there is so much “business as usual” that I’ve cried, muted, with camera off, because I wanted to scream, “I was just at the grocery store and the shelves were empty and no one was wearing a mask!” but instead I said “Yup, I can do that! Let me have my thoughts to you by the end of the day! Ok sure, no problem, I’m on it!” Because that is just what you do.
And I don’t mean that my employer didn’t give a shit, I mean that I think perhaps early on we should have normalized the feelings of despair, of helplessness. Normalized saying “You know what, that experience on the bus was scary and I can’t really give you those notes by the end of the day, is tomorrow ok with you?” Or whatever. There was so much business as usual, and a year in, has it mattered?
The pressure to appear just as normal has taken its toll. I find myself reminding people in meetings that “We are still in a pandemic, so maybe don’t knock yourself out?” And sometimes people laugh at that but I also remind them that I’m serious. Or, maybe I’m the only one crying off camera, stressing about the rising numbers, worrying about my son who has to go into work every day, feeling the pressure of a year of living the way we’ve had to be living. But I doubt it.
We spend a LOT of time bucking up, keeping on, soldiering on and not talking about it. And maybe if we’d had some more time at the outset to take stock, to breathe, to make a plan, to feel the feelings and share them, and to take a short break before we launched directly into this new normal (again, I’m sorry) it might have set the tone for the future. But again, we didn’t have the foresight to know that a year from then we’d be in the same situation, just now with less disinfecting groceries.
Looking back is a gift, and this gift is not lost on me. As is having a job, having a roof, having my family with me under that roof. Things aren’t hard per se. But maybe that in and of itself makes it hard. How can I complain when I have all that I have? So many people are much, much worse off, so it’s not right that I’m complaining. It’s not right that I’m stressed when I’m as fortunate as I am. Tell it to your therapist, you might be thinking, and please know that I am.
We congratulated ourselves at last week’s meeting: look at all we’ve accomplished, look what we were able to do with little to no extra budget, little or no extra time. And it’s impressive for sure. But I am so tired. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
One year of pandemic living has taken its toll indeed, and should I still be working at the outset of the next pandemic, you better believe I’m calling for things to be done a little differently.
*Apologies to anyone who thought there were going to be RENT references galore in this post. I only realized after I’d created the title what I’d done. (Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, actually, if you’re curious.)